Eastern Redcedar Eating up Rangelands, Crowding out Cattle and Curlews

eastern redcedar rangelands

It all started innocently enough – nobly, even: conservation programs encouraged and rewarded ranchers for planting windbreaks to hold soil and shelter livestock.

One of the most popular trees for the purpose, the native eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), has thick foliage and dense branches that make it particularly well suited for the job.

However, eastern redcedar is also a prolific producer of berries, which animals happily feast upon and deposit, spreading the seeds up to a couple of hundred yards from the parent tree. Over a few decades, that adds up to an impressive increase in woody vegetation cover – a “green glacier,” in the words of OSU range ecologist David Engle.

It’s a classic case of too much of a good thing. Vast swaths of Great Plains rangelands have gone, in the span of a few generations, from having too little shade for livestock to too little forage in the shade of all those trees.  According to The Prairie Project, a collaboration between OSU, Texas A&M, and the University of Nebraska, woody encroachment can cut livestock production by 75%.

Cattle aren’t the only casualties. A whole array of grassland songbirds are at increasing risk because their habitat is disappearing under the woody waves. Even just 10% cedar cover is enough to drive away most grassland bird species. Plant biodiversity declines as well, since few plants can grow in the cedars’ deep shade.

There are ecosystem-scale consequences, as well. Streams dry up under the pressure of thirsty cedar roots. The chances of wildfires go up, and the resulting fires burn more intensely.  Since woody vegetation stores more of its carbon above ground than grasses do, those fires also send more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

There are working strategies for reclaiming grassland acres from eastern redcedar.  Most successful approaches boil down to an initial round of mechanical control to remove the woody plants, followed by regular burns to keep them from coming back. Browsing animals, like goats, can also play a role.

Since most of the land in the Great Plains is privately owned, the regional-scale success of such woody plant management strategies depends on enough individual landowners implementing them. The Prairie Project aims to reach those landowners with the knowledge they need to melt the green glacier and restore their threatened grasslands. For more information, visit the Prairie Project website.

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