week299aPhoto by: Angela Tringali

How can rangelands support both endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrows and cattle?

Archbold Biological Station scientists crouch in a pasture at the UF/IFAS DeLuca Preserve. They focus on a patch of grass as Amanda West from Alachua Conservation Trust teaches them to distinguish between different types of forage grasses and to implement a forage assessment protocol developed by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). DeLuca Preserve, in addition to being a working cattle ranch, is home to one of only five protected breeding aggregations of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows.

“This population of sparrows is the only one we know of right now that lives alongside cattle on an active operation,” says Aline Morrow, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s central Florida private lands biologist. “They can really teach us something about managing for both cattle and sparrows. From those lessons, we can provide better recommendations to our other partners and cattle producers who also want to support the grasshopper sparrow.”

“When I started working in Endangered bird conservation, I never thought it would mean learning about cattle forage, but discoveries of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows on working ranchlands changed my perspective,” says Dr. Angela Tringali, Director of Archbold Biological Station’s Conservation Science of Military Landscapes Program. “More than 90% of the Florida dry prairie has been lost, and with it, many Florida Grasshopper Sparrows. The ability of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows to exist on ranchlands means these working landscapes can contribute to the conservation of these birds. However, for this solution to work, these ranchlands must be able to support both growing populations of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows and cattle operations.”

Archbold scientists want to find out how rangelands can support both sparrows and cattle. To do so, they are completing assessments of sparrow habitat quality and cattle forage. “We look at the different types of grass, how abundant they are, and how well they are growing to estimate the amount of palatable forage for cows. This tells us how many animals an area can support and how often the pastures can be grazed, which is the stocking rate of a property,” explains Amanda West, Rangeland Specialist for Alachua Conservation Trust.

week299bPhoto by: Angela Tringali

Caption: Amanda West, of Alachua Conservation Trust, teaches Archbold staff and partners how to identify different types of cattle forage.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about habitat from a sparrow perspective; what makes a good nest location, where to hide from predators, and so on. This is the first time I am thinking about these sites from a cow perspective,” says Elizabeth Abraham, who leads Archbold Biological Station’s Florida Grasshopper Sparrow work at Avon Park Air Force Range. “It is important for ranchers to know how many cattle their pastures can support and how land management affects forage production and nutritive value. At Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch, we use a labor-intensive way to measure forage production and the NRCS method is quicker and easier. This quick, easy method was necessary on a huge property like Deluca Preserve and for the large number of grasshopper sparrow monitoring points. “We are also clipping grass and sending samples to the University of Florida lab to measure protein and how easily it is to digest from a cattle perspective,” explains Dr. Betsey Boughton, Director of the Archbold Agroecology Program located at Buck Island Ranch.

“It’s exciting that Archbold is researching what management strategies will provide for both sparrows and cattle,” says West. “Ranchlands are valuable to conservation because they provide economic support for the land owner and conserve resources for native species. Proper cattle management has been shown to support endangered wildlife across the world and it’s exciting to explore how management for both Florida Grasshopper Sparrow habitat and cattle production can give us a win for both conservation and private landowners here in Florida.”