Minnesota cattle part of refuge management plan

Jun 8, 2012

Unlike the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS), national wildlife refuges have no “multiple use mandate.” That is, there is no requirement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which runs the 556 refuges across the country, balance wildlife preservation and recreational goals with natural resource activities like grazing. For refuges, management is all about the critters and habitat, and if an activity doesn’t help to advance those ecological goals, safe to say it’s not going to happen.

Not surprisingly, the narrower mission of the refuges has led many refuge managers to eliminate grazing over the years, claiming that cattle are harming the plants and animals refuges are required to protect. Not everyone agrees that cattle are doing harm, least of all ranchers, many of whom claim that good grazing practices actually help to attract a diversity of plant and animal species. Many range scientists agree, although an ongoing debate continues to simmer between advocates and opponents of grazing. But regardless of mounting evidence favoring the benefits of grazing, the last few decades have witnessed a steady march towards the elimination of grazing across the national refuge system. Refuges, it would seem, are just for the birds, not the bovines.

But now, a Midwestern wildlife refuge is turning heads by bucking this trend and challenging the prevailing USFWS doctrine that cattle and wildlife don’t mix. This summer marks the second year that cattle have been turned out on Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota, a 20,000-acre prairie restoration project reported to be the largest of its kind in the country. The aim is to use the cattle as part of a “patch-burn grazing” regime to recreate the mosaic of short and tall grass patches that was typical of the prairie prior to settlement and farming. Back then, the main pressures shaping the prairie were buffalo grazing and lightning-ignited fires. It is hoped that replicating this natural pattern with cattle and controlled burns will coax back the abundance of species that once made the tall-grass prairies so biologically rich.

Of course, stocking levels on the refuge are predictably light. Of the 20,000-acre refuge, only 2,000 acres are reserved for the grazing experiment. And while 200 cow/calf pairs were turned out last year due to abundant rainfall, only 160 pairs have been allowed to graze this season. But although the Glacial Ridge experiment isn’t likely to provide a major new source of publicallyavailable forage to Minnesota ranchers, it is proving its value as a demonstration of ranchers’ long-standing claims that good grazing practices are good for the environment, as well.

According to Glacial Ridge Refuge Wildlife Biologist Jessica Dowler, the experiment is already revealing a positive relationship between cattle grazing and species diversity on the prairie, which the refuge keeps track of through close monitoring.

“We’re seeing some great responses—Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope are there,” Dowler told the Bemidji Pioneer. “We specifically go out and survey for birds like that, that we know prefer shorter grass habitat [and] show up in bigger numbers.”

Dowler also noted that the grazed portions of the reserve are attracting a greater number of the broad-leafed flowering plants known as “forbs,” which can be crowded out by tall grasses.

“Because the cows were keeping the grass at a lower level… we’re seeing our forbs having a positive response,” explained Dowler. “We’re seeing a little more diversity and we’re seeing a little more color out there.”

But the real test of the grazing experiment will be on the impact, positive or negative, that grazing has on the greater prairie chicken, a sage grouse-like bird that inhabits the Midwest, and is similarly the focus of environmental concern due to reduced population and range. Critics have complained that the grazing program could have a negative effect on the low-flying birds due to cattle trampling their nests. But so far, the results on the ground are proving the doubters wrong.

“We’ve seen a response from prairie chickens that’s been a positive response,” stated Dowler. “We had a big influx of birds into our lek sites this year in that patch burn grazed unit, because the cows kept some of those areas in short graze throughout the season. It was great for [the birds’] mating activity this spring. It’s a perfect mosaic of short grass and tall grass prairie for those prairie chickens.”

As for the question of trampled nests, Dowler conceded that grazing, and burning, may result in the loss of a limited number of nests. But she maintained that the improvement in habitat will attract far more birds than will be lost through management activities.

“As a biologist… I see it as, yes, there are some losses in nests. You’ll lose some, but overall, it’s better for the population.”

The Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge was originally agricultural land, primarily large cattle feed lots.

The Nature Conservancy bought the land over a decade ago and has been transferring it in stages to USFWS, which opened the refuge in 2004. Though there is little doubt that cattle stocking on the refuge will remain relatively light, the lessons learned, and taught, by the refuge managers about the complementary relationship between cattle grazing and wildlife may be worth significantly more to the ranching community, particularly if it serves to change the minds of grazing skeptics.

“We are spreading the news as much as possible, giving presentations at conferences and workshops, and inviting people to come out and see for themselves,” said Dowler, who described herself as an early doubter.


“I was really skeptical getting into it, because it was new for me, too,” admitted Dowler. “But the more I get into it, the more I enjoy it. We’re seeing very positive effects out there.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent