Grassland Biodiversity

Grasslands Biodiversity

The plants, pollinators, and birds that depend on grasslands of the eastern United States are declining in part as a result of the loss of native warm season grasses. These native grasslands have been lost to historic conversion to cool season grass species, intensive land management practices, and more recently, invasion by non-native plant species.

Partners in the VWL network began a long-term study of the relationship among grassland plant species and associated wildlife, in a predominantly agricultural landscape. These studies were designed to inform the development of adaptive best practices for sustainable land management.

The following is a compilation of species which have been shown to be important to grassland ecosystems.

VWL’s target species are those that rely on open shrub and grassland habitat for survival. Changes in agricultural land-use patterns over the last 50 years, such as the deteriorating quality of native grasslands, agricultural intensification, increased pesticide use, and habitat fragmentation have reduced the amount of preferred available habitat. VWL bird surveys are monitoring where these target species occur in the region to identify how land management practices impact the habitats being used by these species.

Almost all wildlife species are dependent on plant species for survival. The plants provide shelter, habitat, and food. Forbs provide forage for white tailed deer and rabbits. Flowers provide nectar for pollinators. Bobwhite quail, turkeys, and various grassland bird species consume insects attracted to grassland plant species.

Below are some important forbs and wildflowers for Virginia.

Native warm-season grasses grow in bunches or tufts during the warm summer months of the year. Their shape leaves more bare ground under and between individual plants than do cool-season grasses. This allows for a greater number of broadleaf forbs (wildflowers), legumes and insects, which provide food for wildlife.

Warm season grasses offer many benefits to farmers and wildlife, including:

  • High yields
  • High protein content
  • Drought tolerance
  • No need to fertilize
  • Horses, cattles, and other ruminants find warm season grasses palatable
  • High habitat and food quality for wildlife
  • Nesting grassland birds benefit from the late summer harvest date, which occurs after nesting and fledging is complete

Here are the five most common species of native warm season grass in Virginia.

Bombus perplexus on common milkweed

Photo by Olivia Cosby

Roughly 80 percent of the world's plant species require wildlife assisted pollination. Pollinated agricultural crops account for approximately 10 billion dollars annually in the United States. Pollinator decline is generally linked to habitat and forage loss and destruction of nectar corridors. Landowners can help by supporting and planting native plant species which are beneficial to pollinators. Learn more about Virginia pollinators below.

Invasive species provide limited food and habitat for wildlife species. Invasive species frequently create monocultures by outcompeting valuable native plant species. Invasive species can dramatically reduce biodiversity in a manner similar to constructing a parking lot. There are numerous invasive species important to Virginia grasslands. Below are some of the most important and prevalent.

Attention Landowners!

Oxbow Farm
Oxbow Farm - photo by Amy Johnson

We are seeking landowners as far south as Albemarle County to as far north as Frederick County who have at least 20 contiguous acres of native warm season grasses and are willing to have their land surveyed for native plants and wildlife.

Learn More

Become a Citizen Scientist

Citizen Scientist
Photo by Amy Johnson

Every Spring, Virginia Working Landscapes recruits citizen scientists to assist with plant, bird and pollinator surveys across the Piedmont of northern Virginia, from Frederick to Albemarle County for spring and summer.

Learn More

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Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road
Front Royal, Virginia 22630
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