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DNR, The Nature Conservancy to combine fire, grazing at Chippewa Prairie

Dave Trauba, supervisor at the Lac qui Parle refuge, talks about grazing as a management tool at the Chippewa Prairie in July. Tribune file photo

WATSON -- There is a place in western Minnesota where one can stroll back into time and sense what it may have been like to live in an era when buffalo roamed and the prairie seemed unending.

That place is Chippewa Prairie, a 3,000-acre expanse of native prairie and wetlands owned and managed jointly by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy. It is located east of Lac qui Parle Lake between highways 40 and 119.

In order to enhance the historic aura, native plants, and wildlife benefits of this prairie, the DNR and the Conservancy are working on a management plan intended to mimic the natural forces that initially created prairie and helped them flourish. In addition to the current prescribed burn and weed control programs, grazing animals will once again be part of the system through a model called "patch-burn grazing."

Historically, wild fires and grazing bison and elk provided the necessary disturbance to keep trees from encroaching and to stimulate the growth of native plants.

"Buffalo and elk would follow in the path of the fires and feast on the lush green growth that developed a few weeks after a prairie fire swept across the landscape," explained Dave Trauba, DNR Lac qui Parle area supervisor. "The next year fire would occur elsewhere and the grazing animals would move to that site, never impacting one area for too long. It was good for the animals and it was good for the native plants."

While the DNR and the Conservancy have been conducting prescribed burns on a portion of the prairie every year, research has suggested that adding the missing side of the equation - grazing - could further improve the quality of the prairie's native plant community and wildlife habitat.

"For at least the next five years, we will continue to practice and monitor the impacts of this grazing project," Trauba said. "This strategy is popular and successful in more southern states and we don't think there is any reason it won't work here as well."

Patch-burn grazing results in a shifting mosaic of habitats that are ideal for prairie ground-nesting birds such as bobolinks, meadowlarks, upland sandpipers, pheasants, waterfowl and prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Areas that are not burned and then grazed in a particular year provide the tall cover preferred by certain prairie birds for nesting. Areas burned and grazed will provide the short cover other prairie bird species require. Trauba emphasized that the more diversity in plant structure across the landscape - height and density - the more diversity in wildlife species.

In anticipation of reintroducing grazing, an 11-mile perimeter fence was erected to enclose approximately 2,800 acres where cattle will be introduced, possibly as early as next year.

"Our intention is to maintain the 'openness' that makes this prairie so unique and to keep it user-friendly," said Pete Bauman, TNC Preserve manager. "Therefore, no permanent interior fence will be built. We'll use fire to move cattle throughout this landscape from year to year, using only temporary interior fences if and when necessary for specific objectives."

A three-strand high tensile electric fence, which will be operational only when cattle are present, was selected since it is less conspicuous and helps maintain the "feel" of open prairie, Bauman noted.

"Visitors to the prairie, whether there to enjoy the wildflowers or hunt Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, will appreciate the aesthetics of the perimeter fence, and it doesn't infringe on the ability to access the prairie," Bauman said.

The prairie will remain open to visitors throughout the year and cattle and grazing areas can be easily avoided by visitors. However, the introduction of grazing will also allow visitors to experience another aspect of the cyclical nature of our historic grasslands, according to Bauman.

"This is not a grazing system focused on beef production," Bauman pointed out. "It's about quality habitat and wildlife management."

All parking areas and popular road approaches will have visitor walk-through access points, cattle will be removed prior to pheasant hunting seasons, and hunting will continue to be allowed on all Wildlife Management Area lands. Gates will remain locked and will only be used for management purposes.

Bauman and Trauba have been discussing the idea of reintroducing grazing to the Chippewa Prairie for over ten years. The intent is to work with area producers who also own significant tracts of prairie as much as possible, Bauman said.

"By working with these folks, we not only hope to improve the habitat quality of the Chippewa Prairie, but we also hope to improve the quality of local native pastures as well by using a model called "grass-banking'", Bauman explained.

Grass-banking is essentially a trade system where a producer rests his or her pasture in exchange for the ability to graze on the 'grass-bank' land, in this case, Chippewa Prairie. "If successful, we will not only benefit the habitat and wildlife of Chippewa Prairie, we'll also be giving more back to the community in the form of improved habitat on private pastures, grazing opportunity for local producers, hunter satisfaction, and improved opportunity for bird watching and overall enjoyment of the area," Trauba stated.

One change that will occur as a result of the project is the closing of an interior two-track cartway on Conservancy property. Bauman said the cartway was closed to vehicle traffic in order to prevent the spread of invasive species and because vehicles using it during wet conditions had caused the cartway to deteriorate significantly.

"We had also been receiving complaints from hunters that there was an increase in road-hunting incidents from the cartway," Trauba noted.

"Closing the cartway should provide a more satisfying hunting experience for those who appreciate the opportunity to be able to walk for miles and encounter nothing but open prairie. Such opportunities are rare in southwest Minnesota and should be protected."

The Conservancy property is open year-round to visitors, although vehicles, hunting, and collecting will remain prohibited as always. The Conservancy and DNR have posted the boundary between the properties and visitors are advised to familiarize themselves with those boundaries.