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In NW Minn., cows help manage the refuge

Lee Duckstad drives cattle toward the western edge of a recently burned pasture in rural Polk County, Minn., near Mentor on May 24. One hundred and fifty cows and their calves will graze on the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge until September as part of a prairie restoration project. Nathaniel Minor | MPR News 91.3 FM

MENTOR - A herd of cattle will help improve the habitat for wildlife by grazing on a northwestern Minnesota refuge.

Glacial Ridge National Refuge is the largest prairie restoration project in the country. Experts say it's also the largest research project using livestock to manage the prairie.

Herds of cows are not what visitors would expect to see or hear on a national wildlife refuge. But on 24,000 acres of prairie and wetlands east of Crookston, a half-dozen ranchers on horses and all-terrain vehicles recently moved 150 cows and their six-week-old calves through a gate.

The cattle will be on a 2,000-acre fenced section of the refuge all summer, part of something called patch-burn grazing. After refuge managers burn a section of the prairie, the animals are attracted to new grass that sprouts in the burned area and begin to graze there.

Glacial Ridge Manager Dave Bennett told Minnesota Public Radio that researchers want to recreate the natural process that shaped prairie landscape.

"I see the prairie as this dynamic landscape," he said. "Each particular spot would have evolved over time, and changed constantly with that influence of fire and grazing by buffalo. And that's what we're trying to reproduce here with restored prairie."

The restored prairie has about 125 species of plants, but it's unclear if it will ever be as diverse as the original landscape. Bennett said it may take 100 years for the prairie to return to what it was a century ago, when there were more than 300 different plants there.

People unfamiliar with the native prairie may think of it as a sea of tall grass rippling in the wind. But the prairie was a patchwork of tall and short grass.

This is the second year cattle have grazed Glacial Ridge. Allowing them to do so is important, because they keep the grass short and give other plants, like prairie smoke or coneflower, a chance to grow, said wildlife biologist Jessica Dowler, who works on the refuge.

Dowler said there is evidence that the mix of tall and short prairie also attracts important bird species.

"We're seeing some great responses - Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper and Wilson's Phalarope are there," she said. "We specifically go out and survey for and birds like that that we know prefer shorter grass habitat show up in bigger numbers."

The restoration project also is working out well for rancher Matt Erickson of Fertile and his cows. He has the only contract to provide cattle for the project.

Erickson said last year his calves gained about 2.5 pounds a day, about half a pound better than the average gain on his farm.

At first, Erickson wasn't sure that having his cattle graze on federal land would pay dividends.

Refuge officials prohibit the use of insecticides or antibiotics. But after one season, he's sold on the idea.

"It's a learning experience all around," Erickson said. "We get to see some of the benefits that they see and they get to see some of the benefits we receive. So it's a real plus."

Before the Nature Conservancy began purchasing and restoring the land a dozen years ago, it was home to feedlots with thousands of cattle. Since then, the conservancy has been transferring the land, divided into units, to the federal government. The final land transfer is expected to happen this fall.

Erickson said local residents are happy to see cattle back on the land.

"They just think it's really great that you can actually go out there and drive by this unit and you actually see some utilization there," he said. "I mean it's something you can touch and feel because you can see it. I think some people see a little worth for their tax dollar that way."

Some local ranchers think there should be more cattle on the land.

But some environmentalists are horrified that cows are allowed on this prairie refuge. Dowler, the biologist, said they worry that cows will destroy the growing prairie chicken population here.

"(Environmentalists worry) that they're trampling nests and we're going to kick all of our chickens out and they're not going to come back," she said. "We've proven that wrong already. They love this mosaic of habitat, short grass and tall grass."

Dowler said it's too soon to know for sure what role grazing plays in growing bird populations.

Using fire and grazing to manage land is more common in western states. But Dowler said the work at Glacial Ridge National Refuge is the largest patch burn grazing experiment in the nation. She and other researchers will closely watch how the prairie responds to grazing.

It will likely take five or 10 years until land managers start understanding how cattle can help improve the prairie habitat, said Bennett, the Glacial Ridge manager. He knows ranchers, environmentalists and other wildlife managers are looking over his shoulder.

"I would think we should be able to collect enough information here that would help us decide whether this is in fact this is a useful tool for us," he said. "And if it's useful for us it's got to be useful for anybody managing prairie."