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Reconstructing grasslands; Farmers help convert cropland at Arrowwood refuge

NEAR PINGREE, N.D. -- A leasing partnership with growers and ranchers has helped a long-term prairie reconstruction project at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge.

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NEAR PINGREE, N.D. -- A leasing partnership with growers and ranchers has helped a long-term prairie reconstruction project at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge.

After seven years of reconstructing former cropland in the refuge, there are now around 700 acres of former cropland at some phase of returning to natural habitat that is beneficial to the Prairie Pothole region, said Paul Halko, manager of the 16,000-acre Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge. Migratory birds and other species now have more diversity of grasses to provide cover for nesting in a habitat that better withstands the extreme dry and wet weather periods of the region, he said.

“Most of the refuge was under private ownership when it was purchased,” Halko said. “So these were historically farmed fields and not native prairies.” True native prairie is a complex ecosystem that cannot be restored or duplicated, he said. Researchers are doing their best to come close by looking at the complex symbiotic relationships between fungi and bacteria in the plant roots of prairie plants and soils, he said.

The project starts with neighboring farmers who rent former cropland on the refuge for around five years, Halko said. At the end of the lease the farmer pays for native grassland seed that is used to start the reconstruction, he said.

There are 500 to 700 acres of former cropland at some phase of prairie reconstruction, he said. There are more than 1,000 acres left to reconstruct, he said.

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“As soon as we seed one back then we go look for the next old crop field to break out and advertise it for a farming agreement,” Halko said.

The first fields were seeded with a few varieties of grasses and flowers, he said. The more recent fields have up to 40 varieties of native plants and flowers.

The natural process of prairie management in the past were wildfires along with grazing bison and elk, he said. Managers today use annual clipping and prescribed burns with rotating cattle grazing to duplicate that process.

Grassland plants grow under or at the soil level and clipping or burning stimulates growth while destroying invasive plants and weeds with a natural process, Halko said. In a matter of a few months there is not much visible evidence that a burn ever occurred, while at the same time the process has helped to improve the seedbed for continued growth, he said.

Neighboring ranchers rotate grazing cattle on 12 grassland cells over the summer months. After a few days the cattle graze a new cell and allow the previous field to rest and regenerate, he said.

Prairie grasses have different growing periods with some starting in the spring and some starting in the summer, he said. Each season is preferable to various pollinators and insects that help plants thrive and provide the food sources for birds and other wildlife, he said.

“There are approximately 1,500 moths, 150 butterflies and hundreds of native bee species in North Dakota,” Halko said. “The pollinator declines worldwide are primarily due to habitat loss, soil degradation and the negative effects of pesticide use.”

In addition to the non-native honey bee and other colonizing bee varieties there are hundreds of native bee species that are pollinators but are ground burrowing and solitary, he said.

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“I think my goal and purpose is to enhance the habitat of course for the benefit of wildlife but also to give high quality habitat for the next generation of managers to have something to work with,” Halko said.

This is more than managing one refuge, he said. Arrowwood is part of a system of 550 refuges National Wildlife Refuge and 63 refuges in North Dakota alone, he said. The reconstructed habitat is even more essential for wetland management districts that also function as waterfowl production areas for the Prairie Pothole region.

Around 23 percent of the continental waterfowl population is produced in North Dakota and South Dakota, he said. The Prairie Pothole region is also critical habitat for other species, he said.

“I want to leave the grasslands healthier than they are now and benefit wildlife and the public,” Halko said.

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