Photo: Loggerhead Shrike
"A small gray, black, and white bird of open areas, the Loggerhead Shrike hardly appears to be a predator." Learn more about this and other birds at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website. Photo courtesy of Tom Grey.
In The News
Welcome to Playa Country
Playa Country is a weekly radio show that features conservation and wildlife experts—as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers— talking about conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat and landowners' bottom-line. On this page, you can listen to current and past episodes, find more information about the topics, as well as a list of farming and ranching resources that may be helpful. Listen to each series by clicking on an audio player below. To move to another episode, click the forward or backward arrow to the right or left while listening. You can also see descriptions of and select any past radio episodes to listen to and download.
Supporting more than 200 species of birds and other wildlife, the 80,000 playas in the region are the center of biodiversity on the plains. Their basins are lined with clay soil, which collect and hold water from rainfall and runoff events, creating temporary lakes. Playas are also the primary source of recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer, contributing up to 95% of the overall return of water to the aquifer. However, playas are critically threatened, with many now altered from their natural state.
As communities across the western Great Plains struggle to deal with drought and declining water tables, a major, yet relatively unknown natural resource is playing a critical role in replenishing and protecting the region's water supply. Scattered across the landscape are thousands of playas, the most numerous wetlands in the region. There are more than 80,000 in eastern New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, western Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle combined.
In response to severe population decline of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. One scientist who has researched this species says, if a rancher already is managing for sustainable healthy grass, he's already steps ahead. Healthy rangelands help the long-term sustainability of both the landowner and the bird. Practices that bolster the bird's habitat are also good for ranching, and can lead to improved rangeland health.
Realizing the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to High Plains states, the Natural Resources Conservation Service created the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative to attempt to reduce the quantity of water removed from the aquifer, improve water quality using conservation practices, and enhance the economic viability of croplands and rangelands in the region. Learn how playas fit into these goals. NRCS Ogallala Aquifer Initiative >>
If you think the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, or the Duck Stamp as it's commonly called, is just for waterfowl hunters, think again! Whether you hunt, bird, photograph wildlife and scenery, collect stamps or conserve habitat, you'll want to purchase this stamp. As much as 98% of the $15 price goes to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which supports wetland acquisition for the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Duck Stamp >>
No event did more to emphasize the severity of the erosion crisis than the Dust Bowl, affecting High Plains states beginning in the early 1930s. Maintaining healthy soil is one way to prevent a similar disaster. Soil that's moist and covered by a vegetation canopy isn't likely to blow. Science of soil health >>
Playa wetlands benefit from practices that result in good soil health. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says there are four principles to improving soil health: 1) keep soil covered as much as possible; 2) disturb the soil as little as possible; 3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; and 4) diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops. Science of soil health >>
How do scientists get the data they need to study birds? A lot of data is collected by volunteers, or "citizen scientists," through bird surveys and bird banding. Learn more about these techniques for studying the movement, survival and behavior of birds, as well as how the eBird website provides researchers tools to understand all the data that is collected. Get involved with Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory >>
The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. The goal of Wetlands Reserve Easements is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and best possible wildlife habitat. Lands eligible for consideration include farmed wetlands, like maybe a playa lake in the middle of a field, farmed wetland pasture, and lands that have potential to become a wetland owing to flooding. Agricultural Conservation Easement Program >>
Good grazing management is good for the livestock producer and for wildlife. When grazing-land is healthy, cattle put on the weight, and birds benefit from healthy grassland. The key is designing a grazing system that fits a producer's climatic conditions, soils, topography and vegetation types. In many cases, the most productive and ecologically sustainable operations are those that reproduce the spatial heterogeneous conditions found over thousands of years on the Great Plains. Resources by state >>
They're not sport birds, but they are important to the ecological balance of range land. In this series, we look at the lives and habitats of grassland birds, and how conservation initiatives, like the Conservation Reserve Program, help these species. Learn about the Burrowing Owl, Mountain Plover, Swainson's Hawk, Sandhill Crane, Ferruginous Hawk and Greater Prairie-Chicken. All About Birds >>
Habitat conservation requires local support, collaboration and leadership. When landowners, community leaders and resource managers work collaboratively to conserve natural resources, that's when the majority of habitat work takes place. We examine what local conservation partnerships are — and why they're important. Local landowner-led conservation partnerships >>
Scientists researching the population declines of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken say the bird's habitat has been damaged by vertical structures and human activity like road-building and oil and gas mining. Vertical structures include mesquite and other woody invasives, which the bird is averse to nesting near. All of these features lead to habitat fragmentation. Learn more about efforts to link the habitat back together.
Much of the western Great Plains has been in a two-year drought, with parts of the region in exceptional drought. How do ranchers and range managers plan, operate, and protect their grasslands under these conditions? As communities struggle to deal with drought and declining water tables, a major, yet relatively unknown natural resource is playing a critical role in replenishing and protecting the region's water supply. Resources by state >>
A 21-county area of south central Nebraska is home to thousands of rainwater basins, which are identical in function to the playas of the southern plains, but formed by different natural forces. In addition, these basins hold water longer than the playas to the south, providing lush plant and invertebrate life for migratory birds on their way north to nest. Efforts are underway to work with landowners to guard these wetlands. Programs for landowners >>
More than half of western Great Plains farmers are near retirement age. Many are considering conservation easements as a way of protecting the land from development and subdivision long after they're gone. The federal government, through USDA programs, negotiate easements on land meeting conservation requirements. Other organizations, called Land Trusts, have been created specifically for contracting with landowners to protect land from future development. Land trusts >>
Western Great Plains rangelands are experiencing problems caused by the aggressive invasions of native and exotic shrubs such as Tamarisk, Russian Olive, Eastern Red Cedar and reeds. These pests adversely impact ag economics, the ecology, and native wildlife on the Plains. Phragmites is a growing problem in waterways and riparian areas, while Russian Olive and Eastern Red Cedar are invading uplands. Landowners have been controlling with mechanical removal followed by fire. Resources by state >>
Native Americans used fire to manage rangeland for thousands of years, but a 100-year burning hiatus followed European settlement of the North American heartland. Those decades of fire suppression allowed invasive plants to negatively alter the landscape. Now, rangeland researchers and managers are proponents of burning, when done safely and in a controlled setting. Prescribed burns follow a precise, multi-page "prescription" to ensure efficacy and safety. Resources by state >>