Researchers at Kent State University have been awarded a three-year, $914,000 grant to study the fast-spreading eastern red cedar tree, which is threatening ranchland and prairies in the Great Plains states.

Eastern red cedars “are taking valuable rangeland away from grazers such as cattle and sheep that only eat grasses,” said David Ward, a professor in KSU’s biological sciences department.

The tree originated in the eastern United States, but has dispersed into the Great Plains.

The researchers will study how and at what rate the trees – the geographically most widespread conifer native to the eastern United States –spreads across the landscape.

The research is being led by Ward. Other researchers are Oscar Rocha and Juliana Medeiros, colleagues in Ward’s department at Kent State; Sarah Supp, of Denison University in Granville and Gil Bohrer, of Ohio State University.

One issue that two graduate students will explore with Rocha is how migratory birds, especially the aptly named cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), are affecting the dispersion of the trees. The birds eat and later defecate the trees’ cones, or “berries” that contain seeds.

Some research will take place in Ward’s research greenhouse on the Kent campus. There, they will be studying the effects of climate change, specifically elevated carbon dioxide, on Eastern Red Cedars.

The grant also will fund student stipends, including those for some Kent State undergraduates working with David Smeltzer, an associate professor emeritus at KSUs School of Journalism and Mass Communication. They will work with the researchers to produce a documentary about the spread of eastern red cedars for PBS.