The use of fire and grazing to improve grassland habitats for species of greatest conservation needs


Principal Investigator:

Diane Debinski

James R. Miller (University of Illinois)

David M Engle (Oklahoma State University)

Lois Wright-Morton

Student Investigator:

John Delaney (Ph.D.)

Courtney Duchardt (Ph.D., UI)

Tim Lyons (Ph.D., UI)

Derek Scasta (Ph.D., OSU)




August 2010 to July 2014  

Funding Source(s):

Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), State Wildlife Grant

Goals and Objectives:

  • We will develop specific guidelines for natural resource managers regarding the use of fire and grazing to enhance habitat conditions for Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) and other grassland-dependent wildlife in the Grand River Grasslands on approximately 2500 acres.
  • We will extend what is learned on experimental pastures to nearby private lands by increasing landowner knowledge and skills in the application of restoration practices to enhance habitat conditions for SGCN and other grassland-dependent wildlife while maintaining grazing and recreational uses on 1800-3000 acres.



This project built on an experiment that began in 2006 that was designed to compare plant, insect, and bird responses to three types of grassland management in Grand River Grasslands of southern Iowa: 1) patch-burn graze, 2) graze-and-burn, and 3) burn-only.  We examined bird, butterfly, and vegetation responses to each of the three treatments during the second three-year burn cycle and this project incorporated a social science component focused on working with local farmers to extend what is learned on experimental pastures.  All treatment variables remained the same as in the first three-year burn cycle with the exception of stocking rate, which was reduced in 2010 compared to previous years, and it was maintained at this reduced rate since 2010. Twelve pastures, four of each treatment type, served as study sites in our efforts to assess the effectiveness of patch-burn grazing in improving habitat for grassland Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). Pastures ranged in size from 38 to 84 acres and are located at the IA DNR’s Ringgold and Kellerton Wildlife Management Areas, on properties owned by The Nature Conservancy, on private properties in Ringgold County, Iowa, and at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Pawnee Prairie Preserve in Harrison County, Missouri. The three treatments were defined as follows: 1) patch-burn graze: burning of spatially distinct patches within the pasture and free access by cattle, 2) graze-and-burn: free access by cattle and burning of the entire pasture, and 3) burn-only:  burning of the entire pasture but no grazing (typical management for protected lands in the region).  Each of the three treatments was burned on a three year fire-return-interval.  Patch-burn graze and graze-and-burn pastures were stocked annually from May 1 until October 1 at an average rate of 0.7 animal-unit months per acre (this stocking rate began in 2010). Burn-only pastures were not fenced.  No fertilizers or herbicides were applied in the pastures prior to the study, and no chemicals were applied during the course of the current study.  We held annual field days for landowners and we organized workshops to explain the use of fire and grazing for grassland management.  We also conducted in-person interviews to document landowner knowledge, attitudes, and willingness to learn about and implement conservation and restoration management practices such as prescribed fire and grazing on their lands.  Three graduate students completed degrees associated with this project and the manuscripts from this work are being submitted for publication. 

Conclusions and Recommendations:

Our team produced a large number of peer-reviewed papers from this research and we are now initiating a new project focusing on adaptive management in these same pastures. We hope to continue to study these sites and to continue our collaborative interactions with local and state land managers and private land owners.  


08/01/2010 to 07/01/2014