- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

FORT PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon as Fort Pierre National Grassland wildlife biologist Ruben Mares stepped out of the truck and raised a pair of binoculars to his face.

The air was chilly. There was no wind. The eerie, though familiar, pulsating sound of male greater prairie chickens looking for love echoed across the plains. It was an encouraging sign.

Mares was making an early morning tour of prairie chicken and sharptail grouse mating grounds, also known as “leks.” It was one of six routes he travels three times every spring to count the birds and estimate their population.

“One of the many blessings that accrue from living in the Great Plains is the grouse mating dance,” said Dan Swingen, ranger with the Fort Pierre National Grassland District. “It is endlessly entertaining.”

For Mares the morning was less about watching the birds, collectively known as prairie grouse, and more about finding out how many there were. The Fort Pierre National Grassland is managed specifically for them. Everything from range management to wildlife management comes down to what will help grouse be successful.

“Somebody out there just figured this would be a really good species to focus on,” Mares said.

Prairie grouse have become a management “indicator species” for the grassland. That means they are a native species and they need what every other native animal needs in order to be successful. Essentially, when grouse do well, so does everything else, Mares said.

That works because grouse need the several different heights of grass that a healthy grassland has.

“They need some of that really short stuff to do their dancing,” Swingen said. “They need some of the medium stuff for the chicks to live in . and they need the tall thick stuff for the females to nest in.”

Other native species also rely on the different stages of grass. Prairie dogs, for instance, prefer low grass, while some insects prefer the longer grass.

Counting the birds helps grassland managers know how successful the forest service’s management efforts have been.

“We know that if we have a lot of grouse, we’re doing a good job,” Swingen said.

A healthy grassland is a grazed grassland, said Kelly Fuoss, range specialist with the Fort Pierre National Grassland.

“The Great Plains evolved under fire and under grazing,” Fuoss said. “If you take grazing from it and you take fire from it, you get an increase in invasive types of plants.”

One of the most well-known invasive plants in the grassland is the smooth brome grass. It prefers undisturbed pastures and when smooth brome isn’t burned off or grazed, it out-competes native grasses. That can, and often does, lead to entire pastures being dominated by one species - what biologists call a monoculture.

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