More than a decade ago, a group of friends and I made regular trips to Faribault County in far southern Minnesota to take advantage of high pheasant populations. We searched for roosters on some of the county’s public wildlife management areas, but our primary focus was on agricultural lands where a friend of ours who lived in the area had secured permission to hunt. In some instances, we followed bird dogs around large tracts of grassland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but just as often we hunted the relatively narrow grassy areas planted between harvested crop fields and ditches or waterways.
These were buffer strips, of course, though back in 2005 and 2006 or so we weren’t particularly concerned about their proper names. We just appreciated the fact that when we walked these areas, almost without fail, we would flush a rooster or two, or more, even if we didn’t have a dog traipsing ahead of us. (The percentage of birds that ultimately flew away unscathed is a topic for another day.) Buffer strips can be important feeding, nesting and shelter areas for a variety of game and nongame wildlife, but they serve a variety of other purposes as well, from filtering runoff to improve water quality to providing habitat for pollinators. While they’ve been important conservation tools for decades, buffers have increasingly come to the forefront as some states have passed buffer-related measures. South Dakota lawmakers recently approved legislation proposed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard that would provide tax incentives to landowners for installing buffer strips between agricultural land and waterways. And in Minnesota, as a result of an initiative pushed by Gov. Mark Dayton, buffers will be required around public waters by Nov. 1, 2017, and around public drainage systems a year after that.
“Buffers are probably some of the most beneficial habitats that we can put in the ground,” said Brian Pauly, a private lands biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “Not only are they good for water quality, but also for wildlife habitat. Buffers really span the gamut in terms of their benefits.”
Buffers long have been considered tools to reduce runoff and improve water quality. And while that’s as true today as ever, landowners and others increasingly have been using them to accomplish multiple tasks. They do that by increasing buffer width, or adding various forbs to the grass mix, for example. “We’ve seen a strong demand over the past couple of years in the Upper Midwest and Plains. The demand is there, and the technical and financial resources are still there,” said Ryan Heiniger, North Region manager for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. He covers Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. “We’re now talking about getting so many additional benefits out of the habitat than we historically did. It’s not just to clear up a water quality issue right next to a stream or river, and it’s not just to provide habitat for upland game birds. You just keep stacking all these benefits.”
In addition to water quality, buffer strips can be important for soil health and preventing erosion. “Deep-rooted plants are important because they hold soil together but also because they provide better biochemical processing of nutrients,” said John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. The diversity of the plant mix is important as well, especially when it comes to wildlife habitat. Buffers with diverse mixes grow, flower and seed for longer periods of time, so they can serve important purposes in different parts of the year.
“Management of that planted area is also important,” Jaschke said. “In some places, people do consider a buffer an area that can be used for harvesting – haying. We like to see that done after the nesting season if we can convince people to do that, or if a program requires it. Management of buffers can be a useful way to enhance them or provide longevity of the plant material.”
“When buffers were catching on, the thought was to do really heavy seeding with warm-season grasses, and just limit them to grasses. With the national emphasis on pollinators and the desire to make more robust stands of prairie, there has been a new way of thinking to incorporate forbs and flowers into the buffer mix,” said Heiniger.
Buffers and Pheasants
Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, is a proponent of grass on the landscape. But there’s no question that large, contiguous blocks of grass are preferable to strips that may be as narrow as 16.5 feet. “If we look at value for nesting, we generally recommend at least some type of a block of nesting habitat – that 40- to 80-acre block minimum is thrown out there,” he said. “Hens are more successful using those bigger blocks of grass where it’s less likely that a predator will find those nest sites. If a producer has cropland and is installing a real narrow buffer – 30 feet wide, for example – we need to make sure their optimism isn’t sky-high about how many pheasants they might produce.”
Indeed, when it comes to buffers, the wider the better, according to Nicole Davros, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ upland game project leader and acting leader of its Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Group in Madelia. Davros’ master’s degree work involved looking at grassland bird use of buffers in southwestern Minnesota.
“Birds will use buffers, but you can make them more attractive and draw in more birds by having them wider and by having a greater diversity of vegetation, and when they are located in a landscape with a lot of grass,” she said. In wide buffer strips with a diverse mix of vegetation, Davros documented use from pheasants as well as from nongame bird species such as bobolinks, dickcissels, meadowlarks and sedge wrens. “Pheasants aren’t picky. In the early 2000s, we documented pheasants nesting in these filter strips. Pheasants are generally an edge species even when they are in a lot of grass. So from a pheasant perspective, filter strips can be really good.”
Some people dismiss buffers’ utility for game birds due to the belief the birds in them are easy pickings for predators because buffers are linear and predators are able to search them efficiently. But that’s only partly true, Davros said. In areas with a lot of grass on the landscape, there’s something of a “drowning out effect” whereby predators don’t focus specifically on buffers because their potential food sources are more spread out. And when buffers are in areas where there’s little other grass, there may not be a high enough density of birds to make hunting in them worth predators’ while. “In areas with only moderate amounts of grass, predators may do well hunting for birds,” Davros said.
“The bottom line is if we put buffers everywhere they are supposed to be, we will see lots of birds,” she said. “Predators won’t specifically be hitting one filter strip or another. They will be more distributed across the landscape.”
The Stuff Buffers Are Made Of
One of the keys to a successful buffer – if water quality and wildlife habitat are the goals, anyway – is to stay away from planting a monoculture. That’s especially true for grasses such as brome, which does little for wildlife or water, Davros said. Warm-season grasses that provide residual cover from year to year are good, as are those that provide overhead cover. Forbs play key roles, too, because they tend to stay standing later in the season than grasses and they attract insects that birds can eat.
South Dakota, for example, has a program by which the state will help landowners pay their seed cost. “Generally speaking, the state requires the use of native grasses and forbs,” said Brian Pauly, a private lands biologist with South Dakota Fish and Parks. “We will incorporate a handful of introduced species as long as they’re approved by one of our private lands biologists,” he said. “We’re not going to be out there planting invasive exotics, but we do allow some introduced species if we think they are going to be beneficial.”
There are a variety of resources available to landowners who want to learn more about buffers and some of the conservation programs that might be available to install them. Heiniger recommends people contact one of PF or QF’s farm bill biologists, who specialize in habitat programs and conservation planning. Local USDA offices also are good sources of information, he said. While there are a variety of state-based programs that could be used, USDA also lists a number of programs that provide financial incentives to landowners. They include: CRP (continuous sign-up and general), Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Conservation Stewardship Program.
“While buffers don’t necessarily fit every site, they’re very common and useful tools that provide water quality benefits and typically provide habitat benefits as well,” Jaschke said. “That’s why they are so valued and have been around so long.”
Story by Joe Albert
Image: Pheasants Forever file photo