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Outfitting cows with GPS trackers could be good for ranchers and prairie birds

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On the Kansas Prairie, some cattle now wear GPS trackers. Scientists are testing a high-tech version of invisible dog fences but for cows. The goal - to help ranchers control their herds and protect wildlife. Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service reports.

CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN, BYLINE: Prairies need big herbivores. The grazing helps certain plants grow. But too much chomping and stomping adds up. And you can see it along this stream in the Kansas Flint Hills, a region of rare native prairie.

KATY SILBER: All of the vegetation has been trampled, and the roots have been torn up.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Katy Silber is part of a team of biologists from Kansas State University.

SILBER: Yeah. So when cattle create the cattle trails through the stream, it destroys that vegetation, and it's harder for it to grow back.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: That's bad for ranchers and for the environment. But a new project brings together scientists, landowners and conservationists in three states - Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico - to see if drawing invisible fences with software can help. Daniel Mushrush owns this land. He's a third-generation rancher.

DANIEL MUSHRUSH: If I'm going to own Flint Hills grass, there's a moral obligation to treat it like it's sacred because it is. There's not very much left.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: The Flint Hills is some of North America's last remaining tallgrass prairie. Most has been replaced with cropland, cities and suburbs. So native plants and animals are disappearing, like the greater prairie chicken. Mushrush likes the idea of helping them.

MUSHRUSH: They're really a quirky animal. They're really something.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: But he has other priorities, too.

MUSHRUSH: Is it as important as me making my mortgage payment? Obviously not because they can't take this ranch like the bank still could.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: The Nature Conservancy thinks it has a solution. It's leading this project. Tony Capizzo from The Nature Conservancy drives me into the hills to see the Mushrush herd.

TONY CAPIZZO: Ranching needs to stay profitable.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Because if ranches are profitable, he says, they'll remain ranches. Otherwise, our continent's last bastion of tallgrass prairie will inevitably get developed.

CAPIZZO: Right. So if, you know, instead of one relatively large ranch, you know, that area is broken up and subdivided and more and more fences go out, more and more houses go out, that tends to come with more and more trees and more and more just human impacts.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: The cattle are on one of their favorite hills. There are GPS trackers hanging from their necks about the size of an iPhone.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW BRAYING)

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: The cattle will hear a warning noise from the collars if they get too close to the invisible fences that scientists set up. If they cross, they'll get a shock. One goal of the project is to fence off small patches of land across the prairie where the grass can really build up. That creates thatch, which prairie birds need for nesting.

CAPIZZO: You can kind of see and hear the thatch that we were talking about. You know, it's all this dead residual grass left right at, you know, ground level.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: The rancher, Daniel Mushrush, has more than 30 miles of physical fences. They're a headache. He's always mending them. Plus, they're too rigid and impractical to use everywhere you want to protect a stream bank or bird nests. But the GPS collars...

MUSHRUSH: I'm going to be relieved if it works as well as I'm hoping. I kind of have high expectations for it (laughter).

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: He hopes that going high tech will give him healthier grass so he can eventually graze more cattle. Researchers are still figuring out whether the technology will be cost effective. And ranchers like Mushrush can ditch some of those physical fences that he's always fixing. For NPR News, I'm Celia Llopis-Jepsen in Strong City, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.