Saving Minnesota’s Grasslands: Conservation, Cattle & Community

Posted by .

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.”


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)