Many North American grassland bird populations appear to be declining, which may be due to changes in grazing regimes on their breeding areas. Establishment of water developments and confining cattle (Bos taurus L.) to small pastures often minimizes spatial heterogeneity of cattle forage consumption, which may lead to uniformity in vegetative structure. This increased uniformity may provide suitable habitat for some bird species but not others. We assessed how cattle use, vegetative structure, and bird population densities varied with increasing distance from water developments (0-800 m) on the Little Missouri National Grassland (LMNG) in North Dakota. Lark buntings (Calamospiza melancorys Stejneger), which are typically associated with low vegetative cover, decreased with increasing distance from water developments. Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris L.), also a low-cover associate, followed a similar but weaker trend. Densities of another low-cover associate as well as moderate- and high-cover associates were not related to distance from water. Vegetative height-density and litter depth increased by 50 and 112%, respectively, while cowpie cover and structural variability decreased by 51 and 24%, respectively, with distance from water. Confidence interval overlap was common among all measures, showing substantial variability among study sites. Our results indicate cattle use is higher closer to water developments, and this pattern may positively affect the densities of lark buntings and horned larks. The absence of density gradients in the other bird species may be due to the paucity of locations > 800 m from water on the LMNG.
Additional publication details
Effects of distance from cattle water developments on grassland birds