Landowner-Hunter Partnership Supports Habitat Conservation: Controlling Invasive Plants Enhances Diversity

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AMID THE RESTORED PRAIRIE GRASSLAND IN CENTRAL SOUTH DAKOTA, A GROUP THAT INCLUDED LANDOWNERS, BIOLOGISTS, AND INVASIVE PLANT SPECIALISTS MET TO OBSERVE CONSERVATION AND HABITAT IMPROVEMENT PRACTICES. Chris Hitzeman, a farmer and owner of U-Guide South Dakota Pheasant Hunting, gathered the group to discuss the challenges and benefits of restoring wildlife habitat. This diverse collection of individuals shares an interest in expanding and improving habitat for wildlife in the prairie region.

“There are many agricultural producers that would like to do more for pheasants and other wildlife, but the farming and ranching business can be tough,” explains Hitzeman. “Landowners understand there are challenges such as noxious weed invasion and potential loss of income when you convert cropland to permanent grass. There has to be financial incentives for them to take land out of agricultural production and plant the most critical wildlife habitat in South Dakota...food-cover plots for winter survival.” 

The majority of land owned by Hitzeman is in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) including riparian areas, trees, sloughs and permanent grass. He spent the past 13 years converting cropland to habitat for pheasants and other wildlife through CRP programs. His success forged a win-win partnership model between hunters and landowners that is strictly habitat-based.

Optimizing Habitat

“Our goal is to provide high quality, fair-chase opportunities to hunters by optimizing habitat for pheasants,” explains Hitzeman. “This means maintaining high levels of plant diversity where birds can rear broods, and find cover and feed, especially during winter.” Diverse habitat benefits not only pheasants but small and large mammals, insects, song birds, raptors and other prairie-dependent wildlife. 

Hitzeman works closely with Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologists, Natural Resources Conservation Service, private industry, and others to develop the best seed mix, seeding strategy, and post-seeding management practices to meet his conservation goals. “There is no substitute for on-ground observation,” says Hitzeman. “Spending time in the field and watching how the pheasants interact with various plantings at different times of the year is critical. We can adapt our management to more effectively meet the needs of pheasants and other wildlife.”

When restoring prairie grassland, Hitzeman prefers to seed in early spring versus late fall to minimize seed loss to winter injury and rodents. Planting is followed by two mowing events the first growing season—one in mid June and the second in late July. Mowing at a height just above desirable seeded species reduces competition for light, nutrients and water from annual and perennial weeds. A flushing bar is mounted on the front of the tractor during field work to move wildlife out of the path of the mower. 

During the second and subsequent growing season, noxious and invasive weeds are spot-treated with herbicide. Fire is also used to stimulate new vegetative growth and increase plant diversity, with individual fields burned once every five years in early spring. Thirty-foot borders around fields are seeded to alfalfa and serve as both a fire break and food plots for pheasant brood from June through August. 

Hitzeman believes the recipe for success is providing a diversity of wildlife habitat. This includes warm and cool season grasses, a mix of forbs that bloom throughout the summer, wetlands, trees, food plots, and permanent cover and feed for winter. 

Challenges

One of the challenges with CRP is that noxious weeds can invade new plantings. “Seeding success is often difficult to measure until three years post-seeding, and every year there are sites where Canada thistle and musk thistle need to be treated,” explains Hitzeman. “One of our goals is to find a way to control noxious weeds while maintaining a diverse plant community for wildlife, and to share these successes with our neighbors. We tried mechanical clipping to control weeds on established CRP but the method didn’t prove to be a viable control practice on perennial weeds like Canada thistle.”

Hitzeman compared several different herbicide treatments on grasslands to control Canada and musk thistle including Transline® and Milestone® specialty herbicides applied alone or in combination with 2,4-D. He reported that the best treatment for controlling Canada thistle and maintaining plant diversity was Milestone at 5 fluid ounces per acre (fl oz/A) plus a non-ionic surfactant. “Milestone is the most selective herbicide to apply to clean up the thistle,” says Hitzeman.

Thistle is also a problem in young shelterbelts. “Trees provide good cover for nesting birds especially if you plant grass between rows,” says Hitzeman. “It can cost up to about $2,000 per acre to establish trees, so it’s important to manage noxious weeds and reduce competition for water and nutrients. After about five years the shelterbelt shouldn’t require much maintenance.”

Canada thistle growing within shelterbelts was treated with Transline® at 16 fl oz/A. Tree species included both deciduous trees (e.g. wild plum [Prunus sp.]) and conifers (e.g. Rocky Mountain juniper [Juniperous scopulorum]). 

“The four-year-old deciduous trees showed good tolerance to Transline when spraying between rows,” says Hitzeman. “There was no damage to juniper or other conifers, but some leaf curling was observed in deciduous trees that were one year old.” No long-term damage to trees has been observed; however, it is important to understand the tolerance of individual tree species to various herbicides prior to treatment.

The noxious weed management plan for Hitzeman’s property includes a tolerance level of about 20 percent Canada thistle cover within patches. Greater than 20 percent cover has a significant impact on desirable forbs. Fall application of Milestone® may be more selective on certain forbs and still provide good control of dense Canada thistle. Hitzeman suggests that inter-seeding Milestone-tolerant forbs may optimize plant diversity for wildlife habitat following herbicide treatment of dense Canada thistle infestations. 

Sustainable Conservation

Conservation strategies that are habitat-based can help landowners diversify their income. Hitzeman explains, “Every year agricultural commodity prices change—one year, wheat may bring a high price, and a few years later it may be cattle. In our operation we get 40 percent of our revenue from CRP payments, 40 percent from hunting, and the remainder from cash rent on 100 acres of farmland. Optimizing habitat for wildlife and providing hunting opportunities on private land is a win-win situation for land conservation, hunters and landowners. By viewing sustainable conservation from a profitability standpoint it’s possible to change landowner acceptance of programs, and more agricultural producers will devote more of their land to wildlife habitat. The land, water and wildlife ultimately benefit from these partnerships.”


LEARN MORE

... about trees tolerant to Milestone® specialty herbicide at http://bit.ly/milestonewoodyplants.

... about forbs tolerant to Milestone® specialty herbicide that are recommended for seeding into sites infested with Canada thistle, musk thistle, and absinth wormwood at http://bit.ly/herbicidesprairie.

... aboutU-Guide South Dakota Pheasant Hunting at www.uguidesdpheasants.com


®Trademark of The Dow Chemical Company (“Dow”) or an affiliated company of Dow. Milestone is not registered for sale or use in all states. Contact your state pesticide regulatory agency to determine if a product is registered for sale or use in your state. Label precautions apply to forage treated with Milestone and to manure from animals that have consumed treated forage within the last three days. Consult the label for full details. State restrictions on the sale and use of Transline apply. Consult the label before purchase or use for full details. Always read and follow label directions.

Active ingredients for herbicide products mentioned in this article: Milestone (aminopyralid), Transline (clopyralid).