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Diversity on the prairie

Cattle graze on land near Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge as part of a program with United States Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)1 / 13
United States Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager Neil Shook talks about the impact, specifically with regard to biodiversity, that experimental grazing has had on plots of land near the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central N.D. Photo taken Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)2 / 13
A scarlet gaura plant grows upward at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Woodworth, N.D. on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)3 / 13
Wild plums grow in a field just outside of Woodworth, N.D. on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)4 / 13
Agweek intern Lora Horner (left) and reporter Jonathan Knutson (right) listen as United States Fish and Wildlife Service Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Neil Shook (center) talks about the biodiversity of a plot of land near Woodworth, N.D. that hasn't been grazed for over 50 years. Photo taken Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)5 / 13
Lacey and Brandon Koenig ranch both cattle and sheep near Woodworth, N.D. Photo taken Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)6 / 13
Woodworth (N.D.) ranchers Lacey and Brandon Koenig listen to Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Neil Shook (not pictured) during an interview on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)7 / 13
Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Neil Shook surveys a plot of land near Woodworth, N.D. on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)8 / 13
Previously untouched plots of land near Woodworth, N.D. that are now being grazed by cattle and sheep as part of a USFWS project are not only a boon for local ranchers, but also birdwatchers and other agritourists. Photo taken Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)9 / 13
Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Neil Shook answers questions during an interview on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)10 / 13
Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Neil Shook surveys a pristine plot of land near Woodworth, N.D. on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)11 / 13
United States Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager Neil Shook talks about the impact, specifically in regards to biodiversity, that experimental grazing has had on a plot of land near the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo taken Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)12 / 13
A plot of land near Woodworth, N.D. is part of a United States Fish and Wildlife Service study at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge involving livestock grazing on lands that have been untouched for decades. The land pictured has not been grazed for over 50 years. Photo taken Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)13 / 13

CHASE LAKE, N.D. — Neil Shook stands in unpastured grassland and asks visitors, "What do you hear?" He waits 10 seconds or so before answering his own question: "I hear very few birds and insects."

Then he points down to the grass and asks, "What do you see?" He waits briefly again before said, "I see very little plant diversity."

A little later and a few miles away, he stands in pastured grassland and asks, "What do you hear and see here?" He waits briefly and said, "I hear birds and insects. I see a lot of plant diversity."

Shook, manager of the Chase Lake Wetland Management District in central North Dakota, is excited by a project that allows cattle and sheep to graze grasslands that hadn't been pastured for decades.

The district's mission is protecting wetlands and surrounding grasslands for waterfowl production and other wildlife. The longstanding policy, dating to the 1960s, was to prohibit grazing, on the assumption that the presence of cattle and sheep would hurt birds and other wildlife.

But Shook, an Iowa native who works for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the district, changed the policy in 2012, the year after he arrived at Chase Lake.

"When I first got here, I'd see just a couple species of grasses — and I wouldn't hear insects or birds chasing the insects," he said. "Now, you see and hear all kinds of insects and birds. From a biological diversity standpoint, the change has been incredible."

For many centuries, of course, the grasslands were grazed by buffalo, which were a natural and beneficial part of the ecosystem. Sheep and cattle are are "not exact (replacements for buffalo). But they're the closest thing we have," Shook said.

Today, about 20,000 of the 50,000 acres administered by the Chase Lake Wetland Management District are grazed or hayed. Some of the land isn't suitable for grazing/hazing or cooperators — local ranchers participating in the project — can't be found for it.

He's seen the change

Brandon and Lacey Koenig, who ranch and raise crops at nearby Woodworth, N.D., are among the 35 cooperators with one- to five-year grazing or haying agreements. The Koenigs graze cattle and sheep on district grassland.

Brandon grew up on the family farm near the district grasslands, so he's familiar with both pre- and post-grazing conditions.

He was a little apprehensive when he first became involved with the project in 2012. "I'd grown up with, 'Don't touch it (district grasslands). Don't go in there.' It was quite a change, he said.

But it's definitely a change for the better, he said.

Before, "It was basically like untouched CRP (land in the Conservation Reserve Program.) A lot of dead grass, heavy mat," he said. "Today's more diverse. More plants are growing, many different kinds of plants and birds. The total environment has changed so much that there's a lot of different birds showing up. It's improved a lot."

Some birdwatchers who visit Chase Lake are startled initially to see cattle and sheep grazing. But they quickly recognize the improvement, Shook said.

Lacey Koenig has this response to anyone who might assume cattle and sheep don't belong with grasslands and birds.

"But they do!," she said, giving this example: "I don't know what bird it is, but it sits on the cow's back when it's lying down and eats the flies off the cow's back.'

Create a relationship

Historically, ranchers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have had their differences, sometimes big ones.

But Shook — who said the two groups have much in common — suggests that livestock producers, whether in his immediate area or elsewhere, visit him or other Fish and Wildlife Service officials.

"It's important to get together and talk. Start creating a relationship," he said.

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