A collaboration between two Kansas universities could benefit landowners across the state.
Biologists at both Emporia State University and Wichita State University are sharing $1.05 million in federal funding to study how grazing on grasslands will affect plants and wildlife.
Emporia State will receive about $680,000 of the funds for research directed by Dr. Bill Jensen, associate professor of biological sciences. The remaining funds will be used by Drs. Gregory Houseman and Mary Liz Jameson, both associate professors of biological sciences at Wichita State.
The project is significant in scope, Jensen explained.
“The research requires many boots in the field at the 108 study sites we’re targeting across the state of Kansas,” Jensen said.
All of the sites are grasslands that have been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under CRP, landowners are paid stipends by the USDA in exchange for restoring perennial grasslands from cropland. The program was designed to return erodible cropland to permanent grassland.
“Currently landowners are unable to graze cattle on these grasslands or at least not able to do so without a reduction in payment from USDA,” Jensen said. “That’s seen as a missing component of grassland management because grasslands in North America have evolved under the pressures of fire and grazing animals.
“And grasslands that aren’t grazed by cattle or bison, especially these CRP grasslands are fairly homogenous in their habitat structure.”
The question for the team of researchers is whether introducing natural grazing to the grassland can benefit wildlife, particularly through improving the diversity and abundance of plants and insects, which will provide additional food for birds.
“My students and I are focusing on birds and their responses to management of CRP grasslands,” Jensen said.
The research will be done over time, with both graduate students having roles along with ESU undergraduate students working as field technicians.
“We need to recruit 13 students each summer for the next three summers,” Jensen said about his bird research. “This is probably the largest research project I’ve been involved with so far and maybe involved with ever in my career, so it’s a very exciting opportunity.”
Although much research will be done separately, students from both universities may find themselves working together at times.
Allison D. Garrett, ESU president, is excited that the research will benefit so many.
“This could potentially be helpful to landowners around the area depending on the outcome of the research,” Garrett said. “This research also provides an opportunity for faculty members to remain engaged and on the cutting edge, which is really helpful to them, not only in furthering their own research agendas but also in better preparing them to teach cutting-edge materials in the classroom as well.
Finally, it benefits both current and future students.
“This grant will be incredibly helpful to us in that we’ll be able to provide some great internship opportunities and study opportunities for students, and it should be helpful to us in attracting really high-caliber biology students who want to be involved in this kind of research.”
“Those experiences as a field technician as an undergraduate can be vital to generating enthusiasm and filling out student resumes. I know the very reason I’m sitting here today is because I had that research experience as an undergraduate.
“It’s a life-changing experience for students. In addition to classroom instruction, this is hands-on biology.”