News Watch: Aug. 21

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Candidates & Legislature; Climate Change; Conservation; Energy; Forestry; Great Lakes; Invasive Species; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Sustainability; Transportation

Agriculture & Food
 
Candidates & Legislature
Star Tribune: Time For A New Minnesota Miracle (written by Paul Austin, Director of MEP member group Conservation Minnesota)
 
Climate Change
 
Conservation
 
Energy
 
Forestry 
 
Great Lakes
 
Invasive Species
 
Mining
Mesabi Daily News: Twin Metals gets high marks 
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Sustainability
 
Transportation

 

 

 

 

News Watch: Aug. 18

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Conservation; Energy; Invasive Species; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water; Wildlife

Agriculture & Food
 
Conservation
Duluth News Tribune: Minnesota Land Trust, Duluth partner to market outdoors (featuring MEP member group Minnesota Land Trust
 
Energy
Star Tribune: Power surge in Minnesota 
 
Invasive Species
 
Oil & Pipelines 
 
Tranportation
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Blog: Green Line, green lights 
 
Water
 

 

News Watch: Aug. 14

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Conservation; Corporate Accountability; Energy; Fish & Wildlife; Frac Sand Mining; Legislative & Agency News; Mining;  Oil & Pipelines; Outdoor Recreation; Parks & Trails; Pollution; Transportation; Water; Loon Commons Blog

Agriculture & Food
 
Conservation
Pope County Tribune: State Land Trust launches Wetland Protection Plan (featuring MEP member group Minnesota Land Trust) 
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Loon Commons: Saving Minnesota’s grasslands: Conservation, cattle and community (written by Brian DeVore of MEP member group The Land Stewardship Project and featuring Steve Chaplin of MEP member group Minnesota Nature Conservancy
 
Corporate Accountability
 
Energy
 
Fish & Wildlife
 
Frac Sand Mining
Rochester Post Bulletin: Opinion: DNR silica sand mine decision was right for Houston County  (written by Marilyn Frauenkron Bayer of MEP member group Land Stewardship Project)

Legislative & Agency News
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Outdoor Recreation
 
Parks & Trails
 
Pollution
 
Transportation
Minnesota 2020: Bike Sharing and Safety 
 
Water
 

 

Saving Minnesota’s Grasslands: Conservation, Cattle & Community

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It’s that age-old struggle: accepting a little short-term disturbance in the name of long-term stability. Dave Trauba regularly faces the challenge of explaining that tradeoff to hunters who visit the Lac Qui Parle Wildlife Refuge in western Minnesota only to find their favorite spot for shooting pheasants has recently been grazed by cattle from a neighboring farm. Why, they ask sometimes with more than a little anger and frustration, are domestic livestock being allowed to wander around in a place supposedly reserved for wild animals?

“We try to explain to them the big picture, but…,” says Trauba, his voice trailing off. Trauba, the manager of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) refuge, knows that the big picture is this: the soil and vegetation on wildlife refuges and other natural areas require regular, sometimes violent, disruption to remain healthy and resilient. That has become evident to natural resource managers in places like western Minnesota as they watch grasslands deteriorate under a ragged blanket of invasive species like red cedar and buckthorn.

In the past, these grasslands were kept healthy thanks to bison and wildfires. Now, innovations in managed rotational grazing make it possible to expose natural habitat to short-term impact followed by long rest periods—just the kind of disturbance it requires to be healthy. The DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even private groups like the Nature Conservancy are inviting domesticated hooves—mostly cattle, some sheep and goats—onto lands to help manage them. In recent years, conservation grazing has proven it can not only bring back threatened habitat like grasslands, but keep it resilient into the future (see the blog, “Grazing as a Public Good in Western Minnesota”).

Minnesota natural resource professionals have ambitious plans for conservation grazing. The DNR is working with farmers to use conservation grazing on around 10,000 acres of its 1.4 million-acre Wildlife Management Area system, for example. The DNR’s goal is to use the tool on 50,000 acres by 2015. But numerous obstacles must be overcome before conservation grazing becomes a consistent tool on natural ares. For one thing, many refuges lack the basic infrastructure needed to host livestock.

But perhaps an even bigger challenge is changing the conventional wisdom that livestock and natural areas do not mix. Much of this perception is based on the reality of what’s occurred in Western states, where livestock producers have been given almost unfettered, long-term access to public areas, causing major ecological harm in some cases. As a result, mention “public grazing” in any other part of the country, and the typical reaction is decidedly negative.

“Sportsmen beware of this latest craze in grazing on public lands,” wrote Renville County (Minn.) Soil and Water Conservation District technician Tom Kalahar in a commentary for Outdoor News. “If we go down that path, be ready for fences, cows, and less grass.”

Wildlife professionals say privately that agencies like the DNR have been experiencing significant internal and external push back on proposals to increase the use of conservation grazing. That’s why Minnesota conservationists are using public tours, articles and other forms of educational outreach to explain the difference between using well-managed rotational grazing systems to manage habitat on a limited basis and simply letting livestock run amuck on the taxpayer’s real estate. There has also been an emphasis on working closely with livestock producers and refuge managers to develop grazing plans that put the health of the resource front and center.

“The worst thing we can do is have people use this management system without proper training,” says J.B. Bright, a Fish and Wildlife Service specialist who works with graziers in western Minnesota.

The way Dan Jenniges sees it, the best way to get the non-agricultural public on board with conservation grazing is to find a common goal that farmers, wildlife professionals, environmentalists and hunters can agree on. In this case, that means a mutual desire for a healthy grass system.

Jenniges, who has a pasture-based livestock operation in west-central Minnesota, has watched over the years as grasslands in his area get plowed up for crops or are closed off to livestock by conservation agencies, environmental groups and private landowners who want more wildlife habitat. The result has been less perennial forage, and what remains is being threatened by invasive species on idled land. Meanwhile, livestock producers hoping to graze are forced to put too many animals on too few acres, or get out of the business altogether.

“No matter what they want grass for, nobody’s getting it with the way the land is being managed today,”says Jenniges, who grazes cattle and sheep on DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land. “Without livestock, there is no reason for a community to have grass.”

Bruce Freshke, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Morris Wetland District in Minnesota, agrees. “You see people who change their farming, and if they don’t have cattle, the grass is just a waste,” he says.

A Team Approach

That’s why some years ago Jenniges started talking about an initiative that would help bring together as a community all those individuals and groups who want more grass on the landscape.

Such a system would not only expand the benefits of conservation grazing beyond refuge boundaries, but would make private, non-farming landowners a part of this team effort. Steve Chaplin, senior conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy’s Minnesota field office, calls such a concept “coordinated landscape management”—it’s a way to prevent the creation of islands of habitat that are overwhelmed by bad land use throughout the rest of the region

“By having a mixture of private and public lands managed well, we can have a wider landscape level impact,” says Chaplin. “We need to talk about the overall landscape and not just a particular plot of ground.”

Such a community approach to conservation is the focus of the “Simon Lake Challenge,” an initiative launched by the Land Stewardship Project in west-central Minnesota last year. In the vicinity of Simon Lake, which lies mostly in Pope County, is a gently rolling landscape dotted with farms, a mix of DNR and Fish and Wildlife Service land, and property that has been bought up by non-farmers looking to use it for hunting or other recreational purposes.

Unfortunately, much of that land—public and private—is getting overgrown with invasive plants, says Andy Marcum, who does landowner outreach for the Chippewa 10% Project, a joint initiative of LSP and the Chippewa River Watershed Project.

During community meetings in the winter of 2012-2013, it became clear that, despite some differences of opinion, many Simon Lake landowners, farmers and non-farmers alike, share one goal: bring back healthy grasslands and other perennial plant systems. In that light, many landowners are starting to see the value of teaming up to battle a denizen that doesn’t respect even the stoutest fence: invasive species.

“Landowners were finding it didn’t do any good to control invasives if your neighbors didn’t, so they wanted to work communally, across property lines,” says Marcum. “You can’t spray, mow or chainsaw enough to control these plants, so they are willing to try anything, including livestock, even if they were anti-grazing before.”

During 2014, LSP is working with seven landowners representing 1,500 acres in the Simon Lake area—another five landowners are working with the project through the Working Lands Initiative of the Glacial Lakes Prairie Implementation Team. The Nature Conservancy is renting to the participating property owners a skid steer loader with a rugged carbide cutter so they can remove cedar and sumac. Marcum and Chippewa 10% Project coordinator Robin Moore are then meeting with the landowners to set up five-year management plans. These plans will cover getting rid of the invasives as well as setting up, among other things, rotational grazing systems that can keep the plant pests at bay while improving grassland habitat.

Marcum is using an aerial drone to take before and after photos of the impacts of invasives removal (see photo at right).

“It’s a huge difference,” he says.

Cattle herds owned by four different producers are already this summer being used to control invasives on land in the area. The ultimate goal is to combine many smaller herds that could be moved across public and private property lines in long-term rotations, providing the right mix of large-scale impact and rest natural habitat requires while giving livestock producers flexibility. In the next year or two, around 6,000 acres of public and private land will be included in the Simon Lake demonstration area, but there is the long-term potential for as much as 50,000 acres in the region to be managed this way.

“The focus of this is to create a community-based approach to conservation,” says Marcum. “We want to make sure this is completely run by the landowners.” (For more on this work in the Simon Lake area, see LSP’s latest Ear to the Ground podcast.)

Jenniges, who farms in the Simon Lake area, sees an opportunity where farmers and non-farmers could be a part of a common marketing cooperative in which they own a percentage of the livestock being used to manage the landscape. Such a cooperative would not only help bring together the large numbers of animals needed to manage a large expanse of land, but could provide natural, grass-fed meat and other products to consumers who want to know their food choices support healthy habitat. Through such an effort, a whole new group of people could be drafted into a community effort to create more resiliency: conscientious eaters.

Jenniges says this could have a trickle-down effect. More cattle being marketed directly, for example, means a local locker plant stays busy processing meat, creating economic activity year-round.

“That kind of activity starts to add up,” says the farmer. “Somebody coming hunting for a few months in the fall isn’t going to do it. It’s not going to support schools, churches and businesses the rest of the year.”

 

News Watch: Aug. 11

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Energy; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife; Loon Commons Blog

Agriculture & Food
Energy 
 
Mining
Mesabi Dailiy News: McFadden blasted on steel issue 
 
Oil & Pipelines
Brainerd Dispatch: Opinion: Greedy oil industry 
Brainerd Dispatch: Opinion: MPCA and the pipeline 
TPT: Almanac: 8/8/14 (On Enbridge-Sandpiper pipeline) 
 
Transportation
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Blog: A Southwest Light Rail explainer 
 
Waste & Recycling
 
Water
 
Wildlife

 

News Watch: Aug. 4

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Government Relations & Agency News; Health; Invasive Species; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Parks & Trails; Water; Wildlife; Loon Commons Blog

Agriculture & Food
Duluth News Tribune: Farmers market starts in West Duluth 
Economist: Whole Foods – a victim of success? (In Star Tribune
Minnesota Farm Guide: Dayton declares August 3-9 Farmers Market Week 
MPR: Researchers to conduct first survey of Minnesota’s native bees 
Star Tribune: Shorewood passes state’s first “bee-safe” policy 
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Richfield embraces the “co-op lifestyle” 

Climate Change
Albert Lea Tribune: Letter: EPA carbon rules are a good step 
Duluth News Tribune: UMD professor, others search for ancient ice in Antarctica 
Guardian: World’s top PR companies rule out working with climate deniers 
Mother Jones: This Huge Corporation Is Tackling Climate Change – Because It’s a Threat to their Bottom Line 

Energy
Associated Press: Coal delivery issues cause shortage at Xcel (In Pioneer Press
Reuters: Forecasts for higher oil prices midjudge the shale boom (In Brainerd Dispatch

Government Relations & Agency News
MPR: MPCA says permit process meets state guidelines for quick processing 
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Community Voices: It’s public comment time on MN air monitoring plan 

Health
Associated Press: Leading US health official says vaccine to prevent infection by Ebola likely by summer of 2015 (In Star Tribune
MPR: Mosquito numbers down, West Nile virus still a threat 
Star Tribune: Watching Ebola outbreak, Minnesotans scramble their travel plans 

Invasive Species
Duluth News Tribune: Local View: DNR is worst offender of invasive species rules 

Mining
Mesabi Daily News: Opinion: Natural-resources based industries under fire 

Oil & Pipelines
KFAI Radio: Oil trains passing through Minnesota cause safety concerns for residents, activists (In Twin Cities Daily Planet

Parks & Trails
Bemidji Pioneer: Laporte looks for its own trailhead on Paul Bunyan State Trail 

Water
Climate Progress: Why EPA Suddenly Doesn’t Have Anyone Running the Office That Protects Waterways 
NPR: Iraq’s fight against militants shifts to control of water (In MPR
NPR: Toledo bans tap water after algae toxins found (In MPR
Reuters: Toledo, Ohio, lifts ban on drinking tap water (In Duluth News Tribune

Wildlife
Duluth News Tribune: Retiring DNR manager leaves most robust Lake Superior fishery in his wake 
MinnPost: Minneapolis City Council calls for bird-safe Vikings Stadium 
NPR: Wild pangolin: We’re eating the rare mammal into extinction (In MPR

Loon Commons blog: 

Restoring Lake Superior, one Cook County stream at a time
2014 Legislative Session Outcomes 

Forever Green Receives $1 Million
What is a watershed, anyway?
A Graphic View of Diversity’s Power

 

Connect with MEP on Facebook and Twitter

Ensure you continue to receive News Watch: Add lindsey@mepartnership.org to your safe-senders list. 

©2012 Minnesota Environmental Partnership, 546 Rice St. Suite 100, St. Paul, MN 55103

Did you receive News Watch from a friend? Subscribe here.

 

First Test of 2013 MN Frac Sand Law is Successful

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By Johanna Rupprecht, Land Stewardship Project

The owner of a controversial Houston County silica sand mine was notified Monday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that he must stop mining and apply for a DNR Silica Sand Mining Trout Stream Setback Permit. The Erickson silica sand mine in Houston County’s Yucatan Township is within a mile of Ferndale Brook, a designated trout stream. This is the first silica mine to test a 2013 state law which established a rigorous permitting process for silica sand mines proposed within one mile of a trout stream.

Despite being informed by the DNR in an April letter that the DNR Setback Permit is required, the mine owner began mining activity on July 24. The DNR, once informed by neighbors of mining activity, took quick action and on July 28 delivered a letter, via a conservation officer, to mine owner Tracie Erickson ordering mining to stop. Since the letter delivery, neighbors have noted no mining activity at the site.

The Erickson silica sand mine has been strongly opposed by residents in Houston County, who have been fighting this proposal for over two years. At one time, the mine was part of the Minnesota Sands, LLC multi-site frac sand proposal, which is subject to a pending Environmental Impact Statement. Claiming to have severed ties with the Minnesota Sands, LLC proposal, the Erickson mine was released from environmental review by state officials.

The DNR Trout Stream Setback Permit requirement was made part of a legislative package passed in 2013 that is designed to limit the harm of frac sand mining. The Trout Stream Setback Permit application process includes an extensive year-long hydrological study and a financial assurance bond.

Johanna Rupprecht is a Land Stewardship Project organizer based in southeastern Minnesota. She can be reached via e-mail or at 507-523-3366.

News Watch: Jul. 31

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Carbon Rule; Climate Change; Efficiency; Environmental Writing; Fish & Wildlife; Frac Sand Mining; Mining; Minnesota Legacy; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water; Loon Commons Blog

Agriculture & Food
Mankato Free Press: Your View: No research has proved GMOs to be harmless 
MinnPost: Earth Journal: Lettuce From Skunk Hollow: Savoring CSA and homegrown bounty (who knew iceberg could be so delicious?) 
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Grazing as a public good in Western Minnesota 
Twin Cities Daily Planet: University of Minnesota combats food supply issues with MnDRIVE 

Carbon Rule
Climate Progress: At EPA Hearing, Religious Leaders Call Carbon Pollution ‘An Affront to God’
Climate Progress: Retired Coal Miner to EPA: ‘We’re Dying, Literally Dying For You To Help Us’
MinnPost: Letter: Doing carbon-cutting right will be triple win for Minnesota 
New York Times: Religious Conservatives Embrace Pollution Fight 
New York Times: White House Pushes Financial Case for Carbon Rule 

Climate Change
Climate Progress: Delaying Climate Policies Could Cost U.S. Economy $150 Billion Each Year, Report Shows 

Efficiency
Star Tribune: Building efficiency: the invisible clean energy strategy 

Environmental Writing
MinnPost: Earth Journal: From Fukushima fallout to retreating ice: 10 great New Yorker pieces now outside paywall 

Fish & Wildlife
Duluth News Tribune: Spooner fish hatchery to celebrate 100th anniversary 
Mesabi Daily News: Editorial: Wolf hunting season done right 
MPR: How to make the Vikings stadium more bird-friendly 
Pioneer Press: Scandia woman on mission to save the monarch butterfly 

Frac Sand Mining
Associated Press: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources orders Houston County mine to stop operating (In Star Tribune) 
MPR: DNR shuts down SE Minn. sand mine, requires new permit 

Mining
Duluth News Tribune: Candidates view: No to copper mining, fluoride; yes to cannabis 
MPR: Highway 53: Expanding mine returns Minnesota to its road-moving ways 

Minnesota Legacy
MPR: How Lake of the Woods is adapting to environmental, economic changes 

Oil & Pipelines
LA Times: Proposed oil train safety rules include lower speeds, improved braking 
MPR: Erosion exposes Enbridge oil pipelines near river in NW Minn. 
Star Tribune: Minnesota crossed by 50 oil trains a week 

Transportation
MPR: Today’s Question: Should there be high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Rochester?
Star Tribune: Video: U finishes second in solar car race 

Water
MinnPost: My Minnesota Blog: Does Minnesota need a water czar? 
MPR: Charting Minnesota’s future water supply 
MPR: State: EPA wrong to reverse Mesabi Nugget ruling 
Pioneer Press: Woodbury’s Carver Lake has harmful algae 
Star Tribune: E. coli levels close Lake Independence beaches 
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Questions about the Northeast Metro water supply plan 

 

Loon Commons blog: 

Restoring Lake Superior, one Cook County stream at a time
2014 Legislative Session Outcomes 

Forever Green Receives $1 Million
What is a watershed, anyway?
A Graphic View of Diversity’s Power

 

Connect with MEP on Facebook and Twitter

Ensure you continue to receive News Watch: Add lindsey@mepartnership.org to your safe-senders list. 

©2012 Minnesota Environmental Partnership, 546 Rice St. Suite 100, St. Paul, MN 55103

Did you receive News Watch from a friend? Subscribe here.

 

Grazing as a Public Good in Western Minnesota

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As a Nature Conservancy scientist based in a Midwestern state, Steve Chaplin thinks a lot about the impact agriculture has on ecological treasures such as native tallgrass prairie.

“Other than plowing, grazing has probably been responsible for the degradation of more prairie than any other source,” says Chaplin, who is in the Conservancy’s Minnesota field office. No surprises there. But less expected is Chaplin’s next words: “We would like to see grazing on a large scale, which would mean grazing across public-private property lines. To a lot of conservationists it is probably surprising that we need more people, rather than fewer people, to improve the landscape.”

More farmers, and by extension, the cattle they manage, means more disturbance, and that’s a good thing. It turns out native prairies, other grass-based habitats and even wetlands need a little disruption of growth patterns if they are to remain healthy ecosystems, rather than scrubby patches of land covered by red cedar and other invasives. That’s why Chaplin and other natural resource experts are welcoming cattle onto lands that were once verboten to livestock: preserves, wildlife refuges and other natural tracts of real estate. One place where this trend is gaining momentum is western Minnesota, where an agriculture-dominated landscape is dotted with remnant prairies and some of the most valuable waterfowl habitat in the region.

Public agencies and private conservation groups are fast realizing that buying up land and putting up “Nature Preserve” signs won’t secure the long-term sustainability of that habitat—it needs active management, the kind that toes the line between stressing the environment and allowing it to recover.

It turns out when cattle are used to provide that well-balanced mix, the result can be a healthier, more diverse habitat, as well as an extra incentive for farmers to keep livestock as a key part of their enterprises.

“We need to keep cowmen on the ground,” says J. B. Bright, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge specialist who works with graziers in western Minnesota. “The local economies are stronger and the perennial plant systems are stronger.”

A Disturbing Development

In the Midwest, cattle’s return to prairies and other natural areas is a relatively recent phenomenon. Grazing of public lands has a long history out West, where large herds of cattle have been allowed to roam at will on natural areas during the entire growing season, often with little or no controls. In some cases, the result has been decimated grasslands and destruction of riparian areas, resulting in destroyed wildlife habitat, erosion and polluted water.

“When you talk about the West, grazing on public lands has a black eye or two,” says Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prairie habitat ecologist Greg Hoch. In these circumstances, banning livestock from natural areas and refuges would appear to be a no-brainer. But such a rigid line in the grass can result in lands that suffer from severe benign neglect.

“This is Minnesota—if you don’t graze or burn it, it will become forest,” says Bruce Freske, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Morris Wetland District.

Depending on the situation, grasslands require a major disturbance at least every five to 10 years, something bison and wildfires provided in days gone by. More recently natural resource experts have purposely burned off grasslands to keep woody invasives at bay and recharge green growth. But managing a burn can be expensive and it requires optimal weather conditions.

As a result, refuge managers concede they are woefully behind on burning, and they are watching with alarm as pastures purchased from farmers become inundated with cedar, Siberian elm, Russian olive and red-osier dogwood within four or five years.

Fortunately, innovations in grass-based livestock production offer a prime opportunity to bring back the kind of flash disturbances that haven’t been around since the time of the bison. Livestock producers utilizing managed rotational grazing are seeing the benefits of moving cattle frequently through numerous paddocks, rather than keeping them on the same pasture all season long, where it becomes overgrazed. This system can extend the grass season, cut costs and in general produce more profits. Advances in watering systems, lightweight moveable electric fencing and automatic gate openers have made rotational grazing even more viable.

This type of grazing system fits well with what refuge managers are looking for: short-term impact (a few weeks) and long-term rest (a year or more), something people like Hoch call “conservation grazing.”

“The key is to hit it and rest it,” he says. “That’s how these prairies evolved with the bison. Keeping livestock on pasture year-after-year will just clobber it, but I’m 100 percent convinced that if we do grazing right, grassland diversity will increase.”

Rangeland science backs up Hoch’s contention. Studies in numerous states show that conservation grazing can as much as double plant diversity in an area—it not only prevents overgrazing but the cattle’s manure and urine helps recharge the soil’s biology. Hoch and other habitat experts working in western Minnesota have observed how grazing has increased native plant communities by knocking back invasive cool season plants like Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome. Such invasives can blanket the land with a homogeneous cover, which limits the diversity wildlife such as deer, waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland songbirds require. Such grasses also tend to go dormant in hot weather and provide limited habitat and foraging areas for pollinators.

Cattle are also being used to thin out cattails and reed-canary grass around wetlands, providing the open areas many waterfowl prefer when keeping a lookout for predators. And controlled grazing of riparian areas is proving to be an effective way to stabilize areas along waterways and lakes.

The science has become so convincing that conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society have changed their once decidedly negative view of cattle and now see them as an effective habitat management tool.

Right now a small percentage of Minnesota preserves are being managed via grazing, and conservationists say even if the practice is expanded significantly, it’s doubtful it will be present on the majority of acres. For example, of the 50,000 acres the Fish and Wildlife Service manages in the Morris District, around 5,000 acres are grazed by 35 different producers. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources uses grazing on about 10,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas statewide and has a goal of pushing that to 50,000 acres by 2015, which would still be only 4 percent of all state refuge acreage. The Nature Conservancy grazes less than 15 percent of the 63,500 acres it owns in Minnesota.

Nevertheless, conservation grazing is seen as a potentially key tool in targeted areas. The Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, which was published in June 2011 by 10 conservation agencies and organizations, provides a blueprint on how to save and manage a resource that once covered 18 million acres of the state but is now down to 235,000 acres and shrinking fast. The authors of the report identified conservation grazing as a major method for preserving and managing grasslands.

The Prairie Conservation Plan highlights a shared threat livestock farmers and conservationists face: the plowing up of grass to make way for more corn and soybeans. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2013 that between 2006 and 2011, 1.3 million acres of grassland were converted to crops in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Such conversion rates haven’t been seen since the 1920s and 1930s.

Bright, who works with a couple dozen cattle producers who graze refuge land, says livestock producers are increasingly getting “desperate” for pasture as acres they rent are switched to row crops. “I had one guy say, ‘I lost 240 acres to the plow.’ ”

It should be kept in mind that although wildlife managers and farmers share a common desire to save grass, they can still differ widely on what that resource should ultimately produce. Livestock producers usually pay a fee to graze refuges and other natural areas, but that doesn’t give them carte blanche—the refuge manager’s goal of protecting the resource takes precedence over profits.

“The farmer wants the feed and the natural resource manager wants the diversity of plants,” says Howard Moechnig, who operates a grazing consulting firm called Midwest Grasslands. “Sometimes the two don’t match.”

But when they do, it can be a good way to manage an important resource on multiple levels, says Dan Jenniges, who has a cow-calf operation near Glenwood in west-central Minnesota. Jenniges, who has been grazing Fish and Wildlife Service land for eight years and Department of Natural Resources land for two, says the grazing schedule and intensity can vary from year-to-year.

“It depends on what their objectives are for their particular piece of land,” he says of the refuge staffers he works with. Sometimes his cattle are brought in during the spring to knock back cool season grasses like brome and bluegrass just as they’re starting growth; other times a fall grazing is called for to stymie the same grasses as they are coming out of summer dormancy.

Some of Jenniges’ land is adjacent to refuge land, making grazing the public areas convenient; in other cases he has to transport the cattle several miles for a grazing season that may only last around a month. That can be a hassle, but it allows him to give his own pastures a rest and break up pest cycles while contributing to the health of the overall landscape.

“We aren’t renting the grassland—we’re managing it,” says Jenniges. “When you’re grazing that public land, you’re able to take pressure off your own lands, so in general all the grasslands become better, whether it’s for the grass or the wildlife.”