New Best Management Guidelines Help Make Bioenergy Crops like Switchgrass Compatible with Wildlife

Guidelines Focus on Prairie Pothole Region but Are Applicable Elsewhere

12-19-2013 // Aislinn Maestas

As the next generation of biofuels begin to make their way to the market, many uncertainties remain regarding how to make bioenergy production wildlife-friendly. A new set of Best Management Guidelines (BMGs) released today by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) provides guidance to bioenergy companies and farmers growing switchgrass and other native prairie grasses as bioenergy crops, particularly in  the wildlife-abundant Prairie Pothole Region, which is located in the Dakotas and parts of IA, MN and MT.

Perennial Herbaceous Biomass Production and Harvest in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains: Best Management Guidelines to Achieve Sustainability of Wildlife Resources presents a series of practices for producers. Written by Bill McGuire and Susan Rupp, the BMGs were developed with an interdisciplinary team of natural resource professionals and reviewed by experts from academia and industry.

“Producing low-carbon biofuels and bioenergy is critical to reducing the threat of climate change, and we also need to grow and harvest biomass feedstocks in ways that are compatible with wildlife,” says Ben Larson, Agriculture Program Manager with NWF. “We intended these BMGs to be not only beneficial to wildlife but also practical for producers to apply. We are glad to already be working with a biofuel producer that is interested in implementing some of the guidelines in their perennial biomass production, and we hope to work with other bioenergy facilities in the future.”

The Upper Midwest has some of the greatest potential in the country to grow cellulosic ethanol and other bioenergy feedstocks, such as from the native prairie grasses that once formed one of the largest grasslands on earth. With its matrix of shallow potholes, grasslands, and fields, the Prairie Pothole Region is of critical importance to waterfowl and other birds, providing nesting habitat to over half the country’s ducks. While it is often assumed that perennial grasses will offer excellent wildlife habitat, it is not always true. For example, single-species stands of tall, densely planted grasses provide little habitat value to most species.

NWF developed the best management guidelines (BMGs) to make the production and harvesting of grasses for bioenergy production more sustainable for wildlife. The BMGs include consideration of prairie potholes, but are relevant to other areas of the country. The BMGs try to balance the needs of production agriculture and making a profit with wildlife needs. Highlights of the BMGs include recommendations to:

  • Plant bioenergy crops on existing cropland rather than converting native sod or wetlands.
  • Plant bioenergy crops next to potholes, native prairies, or other planted grasses to create larger tracts that provide habitat to species that avoid the edges of habitat.
  • Use native grasses. A mix of Indiangrass, big bluestem and sideoats grama is recommended to benefit more species, but the BMGs also include recommendations for switchgrass-only stands that industry might prefer.
  • Follow USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) guidelines for establishment and management of bioenergy plantings.
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