Large-scale fire management restores grassland bird richness for a private lands ecoregion.
Of all terrestrial biomes, grasslands are losing the most biodiversity the most rapidly, so there is a critical need to document and learn from large-scale restoration successes. In the Loess Canyons ecoregion of the Great Plains, USA, an association of private ranchers and natural resource agencies has led a multi-decadal, ecoregion-scale initiative to combat the loss of grasslands to woody plant encroachment by restoring large-scale fire regimes. Here, we use 14 years of fire treatment history with 6 years of grassland bird monitoring and remotely sensed tree cover data across 136,767 ha of privately owned grassland to quantify outcomes of large-scale grassland restoration efforts. Grassland bird richness increased across 65% (90,032 ha) of the Loess Canyons, and woody plant cover decreased up to 55% across 25% (7408 ha) of all fire-treated areas. This was accomplished with extreme fire treatments that killed mature trees, were large (mean annual area burned was 3100 ha), spatially clustered and straddled boundaries between invasive woodlands and remaining grasslands - not heavily infested woodlands. Findings from this study provide the first evidence of human management reversing the impacts of woody encroachment on grassland birds at an ecoregion scale.