Habitat fragmentation and loss have led to significant declines in both the distribution and abundance of bird species throughout much of the world. In North America, the rate of decline in acreage of tallgrass prairies has exceeded that of any other major ecosystem type. The conversion of tallgrass prairies in the Midwest was virtually complete by the early 1900’s. The intensification of agriculture since the 1950’s has been reflected by steady population declines for many grassland bird species. Efforts to understand and reverse population declines of grassland birds have revealed that patches of grassland habitat must be viewed in the context of the surrounding landscape, that various bird species require different amounts of grassland habitat, and that not all grasslands are of equal value to grassland birds.
The Wisconsin Grassland Bird Study, conducted in the late 1980’s, led to an interest in and development of a model for landscape-scale management of grassland birds. Because Wisconsin landscapes tend to be highly fragmented due to the diversity of land use practices in the state, the Wisconsin model for grassland bird conservation calls for habitats to be managed at various spatial scales. The central idea behind the model is to identify large landscapes (≥ 4,000 hectares) with a significant core of contiguous permanent grassland (~800 ha or roughly 20% of the landscape) where approximately 20-30% of the area in the landscape matrix surrounding the core is in permanent or long-term grassland (such as permanent easements, Conservation Reserve Program lands or pasture). This model, or some version of it, has been applied in Wisconsin and several other mid-western states and has been adopted by Partners in Flight for use in all prairie habitats. Despite the popularity of the Wisconsin model, the approach has not been thoroughly evaluated to determine if it is effective at increasing grassland bird populations. In 2012, a collaboration between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Wisconsin – Madison initiated a long-term monitoring and research program to provide this needed information.