A Mississippi State study is examining the benefits to wildlife of a popular conservation practice designed to prevent soil and pesticide runoff from cultivated fields.
The new investigation of conservation buffers by the Forest and Wildlife Research Center expands the scope of research already under way by other scientists at the university.
Conservation buffers are narrow strips of permanently vegetated land designed around cultivated fields to intercept pollutants and manage other environmental concerns. In 1997, the United States Agriculture Department launched the National Conservation Buffer Initiative to help landowners add up to two million miles, or 6 million acres, of buffers around fields.
"Mississippi is emerging as a leading state in examining the ecological benefits of buffer practices," said principal investigator Wes Burger. "Extensive research in MSU's plant and soil science department previously has focused on the herbicide retention benefits. Now, we in wildlife and fisheries are working to determine their economic, agronomic, and ecological costs and benefits.”
Nationally, more than 1.2 million miles--or 4.6 million acres--of buffers have been established, most of those through the Conservation Reserve Program. Mississippi has about 60,000 acres in the program, according to Burger, a professor of wildlife and fisheries.
"Previous studies have shown conservation buffers help control soil erosion and improve soil and water quality by removing sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, and other potential contaminants from runoff,” Burger said. "There is little information, however, about the impact on wildlife, especially regarding reproductive performance of birds in field borders.”
The three-year study, which also includes researchers from the department of biological sciences, is funded by Delta Wildlife, Inc. It will determine the effects of field border management practices on bobwhite quail and other ground-nesting grassland bird species, as well as songbirds.
Delta Wildlife is a Greenville-based 2,000 member organization devoted to improving the wildlife habitat and the environment of the Mississippi Delta. The funding provided by the organization is through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
MSU personnel are establishing 30- to 60-foot field borders planted to native warm-season grasses and legumes on selected fields of participating private farms. Primary crops of interest are corn, soybeans and cotton.
Graduate students under Burger's direction will conduct surveys during the breeding season and winter to measure the number and diversity of grassland birds in the field borders and crop fields. The borders also will be searched for nests to determine bird reproductive success and the findings compared to agricultural fields with no borders.
"When complete, the project will provide information on how field border composition, management and maintenance influence bird use,” Burger said. "This information will be useful in developing management recommendations and farm policy.”