South Dakota Grassland Coalition

by Olivia Lappin

May 2023

The History of the Landscape

Often regarded as the father of wildlife management, Aldo Leopold quoted in his 1933 book Game Management “…game (wildlife) can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it – axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun”. As a Private Lands Wildlife Biologist (PLWB) working with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies in South Dakota, knowing and understanding the teachings of Aldo Leopold is like knowing your ABCs. Now I will admit, it wasn’t always like this for me. I grew up in Maine, a state with more lobster than cattle, and I was never fully exposed to the world of rangelands. I never learned how grazing native grasslands can actually benefit wildlife. I was your typical first year wildlife student from Maine who was clueless about livestock and especially livestock as potential drivers of ecosystem health! Then I attended Mississippi State University to obtain my master’s degree in wildlife & fisheries, where I took a course titled “Principals and Practice of Conservation in Agricultural Landscapes”. One of my biggest takeaways from the course was remembering that to be an effective land manager, one must consider the history of the landscape, specifically the historic disturbance regime. In historic western South Dakota, most natural disturbances came from grazing bison, and fire. Today, livestock (largely cattle ranching) and prescribed fire fill that ecological role. By appropriately managing disturbance on the land, we can maintain and strengthen healthy grasslands and provide habitat and resources for a variety of wildlife species. Conversely, poor grazing and land management techniques can have catastrophic effects on our natural resources.

South Dakota boasts such amazing natural resources, from the Black Hills to the Badlands or even the vast amount of some of the last remaining intact grasslands in the world! With grassland birds experiencing the fastest and greatest declines (~53% loss since 1970) compared to any other group of birds in North America, South Dakota holds a real treasure. However, with South Dakota losing vast amounts of intact grasslands due to row crop production and urban sprawl (2.6 million acres of grassland plowed up between 2018-2019) in addition to increasing threats of woody encroachment, the health of native grasslands in South Dakota is at risk. For example, between 1990 and 2019, $5 billion worth of forage was lost in the western United States due to the encroachment and growth of new trees. The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and South Dakota Grassland Coalition have a shared view: native grasslands of North America are one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world and working to make land both profitable and healthy is key to conserving these threatened grasslands and the wildlife and communities that call them home.


South Dakota has a lot of livestock, and we can use these animals to help improve grasslands by creating structural diversity. Every wildlife species responds differently to different grazing pressure on the land. Many grassland birds are ground-nesters, so they need some sort of vegetative concealment when nesting. However, some birds, like the horned lark, prefer shorter grass length that develops from heavier grazed pastures. Alternatively, species like western meadowlarks and long-billed curlew prefer an area with lighter use. I like to call this patchwork of varying vegetation heights a “mosaic” and we can work with ranchers to achieve this mosaic by implementing practices such as prescribed grazing. When implementing prescribed grazing, we determine the optimal amount of time livestock should spend in each pasture based on the type and number of livestock, vegetation type, soil type, precipitation, and current pasture condition. By varying grazing geographically and seasonally, ranchers can not only improve forage productivity for cattle, but they can also provide more structural diversity for breeding grassland birds.

Conserving birds and their habitats

At bird conservancy of the rockies, our mission is to conserve birds and their habitats through an integrated approach of science, education, and land stewardship. My role as a PLWB focuses on stewardship, which allows me to work with private landowners to develop ways to manage land in a way that provides benefits to vegetation, soil, wildlife, livestock, and landowners. The homebase of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies is Colorado. However, our work radiates from the Rockies to the Great Plains, Mexico and beyond with 15 PLWBs working in 6 states across the west. Further, our stewardship work is sustained through a multitude of partnerships. In South Dakota, I work closely with a variety of organizations including but not limited to; Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (SDGFP), Pheasants Forever, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture (NGPJP), South Dakota Grassland Coalition, South Dakota State University, The Nature Conservancy, and many others. It is through these partnerships that we can put effective conservation on the ground and help landowners manage healthy lands for generations to come.


Sound land management stems from sound science and public outreach. Thanks to generous private landowners in western South Dakota, we have recently constructed a Motus Wildlife Tracking Systems (Motus) which is a network of automated radio telemetry stations that allows us to research and understand migratory bird movements in the region these stations are affixed to existing structures with permission. Birds are captured and equipped with small tracking devices that send off signals to the stations to alert our science team when a tagged bird is passing through a certain area. There are hundreds of Motus stations across North America and Mexico. There is currently one Motus station in South Dakota located at the Cammack Ranch in White Owl, SD. In June 2022, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology filmed a video called Vital Signs which highlighted the importance of ranching for grassland birds and featured South Dakota ranchers Reed, Gary, and Floyd Cammack. There are plans to install four more Motus stations across South Dakota in 2023 and we are excited to continue this research to further understand the needs of grassland birds and how land managers can use this information to strengthen land management efforts.

“A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources’, but it does affirm the right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such” – Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac

Olivia Lappin is a Private Lands Wildlife Biologist with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, based in Sturgis, South Dakota in partnership with the USDA: Natural Resources Conservation ServiceSouth Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Source: SDGC Newsletter

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