Leopold Live! Chapter 2 Recap: Grassland Preparation for Pollinators

We’re back with our newest episode of Leopold Live!: Chapter 2 from the Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve.  We truly enjoyed getting to connect with you to talk about another wildlife management tool that you can add to your stewardship toolbox. In this episode we talked with the ranch’s resident zoologist, Jared Holmes, about native grasslands and how they can be used to benefit pollinator species on your property.

We began the episode by introducing a few of the pollinator groups found here in Texas. These species are incredibly important for all types of ecosystems, not only here in the state, but worldwide. To put this in a bit of perspective, Jared cited that 80% of flowering plants and 75% of our food crops need pollinators to complete their life cycle. Without pollinators we would not have many of the beautiful plants and foods we enjoy!

Pollinators are also important for native grasslands. These ecosystems used to cover approximately ¾ of the state of Texas but have been slowly fragmenting apart due to fire suppression, overgrazing, brush encroachment and urban development. So, what can we do to help these ecosystems and the pollinators that keep them around?

When it comes to managing native grasslands, it is important to understand that they have evolved with disturbance events, mainly fire and grazing. Why did they do this? Jared explained that most grassland species are bunch grasses; one of the most common in Texas and on the ranch is little bluestem. These bunch grasses shed old leaf materials to create a thatch layer before growing back from their base each year. They can recycle their own organic materials to help build soil from this thatch, but they need a little outside help to do it.

This is where those disturbance events come into play. In the past, herds of bison would migrate across the plains,  eat this grass, and help compact thatch material back into the soil. In modern times we’ve replaced the bison with livestock, but they can still provide the same benefits to grasslands through grazing management. Jared mentioned his preferred method is “high intensity, short duration” grazing, as this mimics what a herd of migrating bison would do on the landscape.

If you do not want to graze livestock on your property, another option is to burn your grassland every 2-7 years to simulate the natural fire cycle in Texas. Jared mentioned there are a few important considerations to keep in mind when planning a burn, such as fuel load, time of year, and management goals. If you want to employ this practice we highly recommend viewing a previous episode where we talked all things prescribed burning and gave a short demonstration using this method.

The last disturbance types we covered were mechanical methods such as disking or shredding. Jared covered a few key considerations when it comes to employing these tools to manage grasslands. First, your disking depth depends on the soil layer and thatch layer present, but it will generally range from 2-6 inches. The second consideration is the time of year. Jared recommended disking between the end of October and the end of February to avoid nesting season for ground-nesting birds. The third is the type of soil present. For shallow or fragile soils, Jared does not recommend using a traditional disk. Instead, he recommended using an old box spring mattress without the polyester and dragging it behind a truck to break up any soil compaction and spread the thatch. Lastly, Jared advised that these mechanical methods need to be used with caution as they can mimic overgrazing or an extreme fire if used too heavily. This can allow non-native, invasive grasses to move into your grassland and outcompete the native plants preferred by pollinators.

Jared mentioned you don’t necessarily have to manage a large grassland like we show in this episode to help pollinators in your area. A small pollinator garden in your backyard can aid these species by providing habitat corridors between larger intact grasslands. These are especially important for migratory species, such as hummingbirds.

Before installing one of these gardens, Jared suggested researching what pollinators are already present in your area. For example, if you want to attract monarch butterflies, you can plant one of our native milkweeds and create a “Monarch Waystation”. Next, the biggest decision you will need to make is the size of your budget. Lastly you will need to decide the placement of your garden, how big it will be, and the types of labor and tools you have at your disposal to install and maintain it.

Landowners can play a significant role in conserving populations of native pollinators by applying the management practices we discussed on their property. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has crafted additional management guidelines that can be used to develop a wildlife management plan for the 1-d-1 wildlife tax valuation program.

We rounded the episode out with a short Q&A session with Jared.

What kinds of plants are best to plant in my grassland?

Anything that is native and flowers! Jared listed a few species including, salvias, foxgloves, and skullcaps. He also mentioned to not completely focus on your traditional wildflowers and include plants like flowering shrubs (agarita) and ones with tubular flowers (buckeyes) and agaves for bats. It all depends on the species you’re trying to attract.

Are there certain flower colors that pollinators prefer?

Insects don’t see the same way humans do and pick up on different infrared cues based on the flower color. So, when you think of our native bees they are usually attracted to flowers or parts of flowers that are highlighter yellow. But it really depends on the species!

How long will it take pollinators to find my grassland after I’ve planted it?

It depends on how connected your grassland is to others via habitat corridors! You’re more likely to attract pollinators quickly if you don’t have as much native range around you. Jared cautioned to not get frustrated because if you build it with a diversity of plants they will come.


Our crew can’t wait to share the next episode of Leopold Live! with you! Be sure to keep an eye on Facebook for all upcoming episodes.

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