Land Bird Conservation Plan Colorado  

Executive Summary
Overview of Colorado
Physiographic Region 36

  • Grasslands
  • Lowland Riparian
  • Shore/Bank
  • Wetlands

  • Physiographic Region 62
    Physiographic Region 87
    Implementation Strategies
    Literature Cited

    Physiographic Region 36: Central Shortgrass Prairie


    Description and Ecology: Shortgrass is dominated by two low-growing warm-season grasses, blue grama and buffalo grass; western wheatgrass is also present, along with taller vegetation, including widespread prickly-pear cactus and yucca, and cholla in the south. Sandsage prairie is found where sandy soils occur, and is dominated by sand sagebrush and the grasses sand bluestem and prairie sand-reed. Mixed grass (needle-and-thread, side-oats grama) and tallgrass (big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass) communities occur locally.

    Ecological forces that shape the shortgrass prairie landscape include fire, grazing, and climate. Little is known about the ecological role of fire in shortgrass, although even before the advent of fire suppression by humans, fire was probably less frequent than in either mixed grass or tallgrass prairie (Weaver et al. 1996). Prescribed burns have been used in shortgrass to remove woody vegetation, cacti, and accumulated litter and to improve grazing conditions for livestock, but the grasses recover slowly, requiring 2-3 years with normal precipitation (Wright and Bailey 1980). Before widespread settlement by European-Americans, grazing regimes consisted of native ungulates wandering widely across the shortgrass prairie--spreading over the landscape the impact of their grazing and trampling--and prairie dog colonies expanding, contracting, and moving in response to climatic influences on vegetation so that, at any given time, they grazed some areas intensively and others not at all (Knopf 1996b). The severity of the semi-arid climate and sharp differences in precipitation over relatively short distances produced contrasts in vegetation and advanced the formation of a variegated landscape. Grassland birds thus evolved in a shifting landscape mosaic, with access to patches of vegetation in a variety of successional stages and conditions.

    Importance and Conservation Status: The driving conservation issues in the Central Shortgrass Prairie are habitat loss and habitat alteration. Colorado's rapid population growth and accompanying land development are responsible for much of the habitat conversion and degradation. Within the shortgrass area much of that development is concentrated along the Front Range in Denver, Boulder, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Larimer, and Douglas counties, where population densities are as high as 1,180 people/kmÓ (3,050/miÓ). Human population densities in counties within the physiographic area but away from the Front Range corridor range from as high as 6.6 people/kmÓ (17.1/miÓ) in Morgan County to as low as 0.4 people/kmÓ (1.0/miÓ) in Kiowa County (U.S. Department of Commerce 1991).

    Because much of the shortgrass prairie is too dry to farm without irrigation, the proportion of plowed land is not high and much of the region is still grassland (Weaver et al. 1996). In Colorado, approximately 67% of the historical shortgrass prairie still exists (Knopf 1994), although some sources suggest that only 20% of the original shortgrass prairie exists in an unaltered state--the rest having been converted to cropland and urban development or degraded by overgrazing. Conversion to agriculture results in an absolute loss of grassland habitat, but much of the area is managed for grazing, which maintains grassland habitat but often with changes in plant height, vigor, and community composition.

    Ideally, modern management would replicate the timing, intensity, and landscape distribution of the natural disturbances that shaped the shortgrass prairie (unfortunately, detailed information about presettlement conditions is lacking). In practice, however, modern grazing tends to spread grazing intensity evenly, producing a comparatively homogeneous landscape. Shortgrass birds are left with few options if grazed prairie does not meet their habitat needs. "There is no shortage of grazed and hayed lands for those species that benefit from these activities. By comparison, habitat for species with breeding requirements that are not compatible with grazing and haying is exceedingly rare and continues to diminish" (Dobkin 1994).

    Habitat loss and alteration have contributed to population declines among shortgrass bird species. These declines have been largely overlooked by the conservation community until recently, due at least in part to widespread concern about population declines in Neotropical migrant bird species of the eastern deciduous forest. The result of newly redirected focus is that grassland habitat is now arguably the highest conservation priority in the U.S. "As a group, grassland species have shown steeper, more consistent, and more geographically widespread declines than any other behavioral or ecological grouping of North American species," including Neotropical migrants (Knopf 1996b).

    Priority Species Accounts: This habitat is represented by 14 priority species--more than any other habitat in Colorado. These species are Swainson's Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Plains Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Mountain Plover, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, Cassin's Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, and McCown's Longspur.

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