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STEPHEN WINTER: Wildlife Society chapter: Grazing can help wildlife

ST. PAUL — The effect of livestock grazing on wildlife habitat often has been a controversial subject. For many people, their only familiarity with this topic may be overgrazed pastures where high densities of livestock are confined in pastures with little regard for how vegetation, soil and water resources are affected.

But livestock can be used as an effective tool to manipulate wildlife habitats for the benefit of plants and animals that are of conservation interest. In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources and US Fish and Wildlife Service recently have increased the use of livestock grazing on lands they manage as a means of better managing the wildlife habitats they are tasked with maintaining for the residents of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society, an organization dedicated to the management of wildlife resources based on sound scientific principles, recently completed a position statement on conservation grazing.

The chapter defines conservation grazing as the use of domestic livestock for the primary purpose of modifying vegetation to meet wildlife habitat management objectives. Conservation grazing is used on lands dedicated to the conservation of natural resources including state wildlife management areas, federal National Wildlife Refuges and Waterfowl Production Areas and properties owned or managed by non-governmental conservation organizations and land trusts.

Conservation grazing also is used on private lands and often is compatible with traditional livestock production goals and objectives.

From purple coneflowers in the southeast to prairie chickens in the northwest, Minnesotans are blessed with many unique plants and animals that inhabit grasslands and savannas throughout the state. These habitats evolved with a range of disturbances, such as fire, drought, flood and grazing, which are critical to their perpetuation.

Conservation land managers are tasked with protecting and perpetuating the plants and animals of Minnesota’s natural communities, and they need tools and strategies that most effectively achieve these objectives. Well-managed grazing by livestock can be an effective tool for modifying vegetation to benefit a variety of wildlife species.

Grazing strategies can vary depending on season of use, stocking rate and the type of livestock that are doing the grazing. When conservation grazing strategies are based on scientific principles, are implemented with clearly defined objectives and are monitored for success, wildlife and their habitats can benefit immensely.

For those unfamiliar with habitat management, practices such as timber harvesting, prescribed burning and wetland drawdowns may seem contrary to the perpetuation of forests, grasslands and wetlands. But like livestock grazing, they’re all tools that can be used to manage wildlife habitats to benefit the plants and animals that Minnesotans value.

As Aldo Leopold said in his book Game Management, “the central thesis of game management is this: Game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, plow, cow, fire and gun.”

Winter, a wildlife biologist, is a regional representative for the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society.