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North Dakota Prairie

Our Natural Heritage

This resource is based on the following source:
North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department.  No Date.  North Dakota prairie:
     our natural heritage.  North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, U.S.
     Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  unpaginated.
This resource should be cited as:
North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department.  No Date.  North Dakota prairie:
     our natural heritage.  North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, U.S.
     Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Jamestown,
     ND:  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     (Version 05MAY99).

Native Prairie Values, Management, and Conservation Programs

Native Prairie Heritage & Values

"Within one human lifetime, the prairies have passed from wilderness to become the most altered habitat in this country and one of the most disturbed, ecologically simplified and over-exploited regions in the world. The essence of what we risk losing when the grasslands are destroyed is not a species here or a species there, but a quality of life, the largeness and wildness that made this country remarkable." - Adrian Forsyth

GIF -- Purple Coneflower Native prairie once stretched for hundreds of miles across the middle section of our country, covering nearly a quarter of the lower 48 states. Prairie supported an enormous variety of plant and animal life, including large herds of bison, pronghorn, elk, plains grizzlies, and wolves. The wild prairie inhabitants thrived with wildfires, grazing, drought, heat and cold.

Settlement brought an end to the boundless prairie landscape, the great herds of bison, and the renewing wildfires. Pioneers began to break the prairie sod, and within the span of 100 years prairie was almost eliminated. The richest and most diverse prairies now are bountiful cropland. Today, the prairie ecosystem is just a ghost of its former self.

Prairie is now considered one of our most imperiled habitats worldwide. In North Dakota, approximately 80% of our prairie is gone, with most remaining areas found in the arid west. In the Red River Valley, over 95% of our prairie is gone. With this loss, prairie plant and animal populations have also declined, with some species now becoming rare.

GIF -- Picture of Prairie Flowers Many prairie birds currently show population declines; the western prairie fringed orchid is now a rare flower of the tallgrass prairie; and the Dakota skipper butterfly is another prairie inhabitant whose numbers are decreasing. Each of these declines is believed to be directly related to the loss of prairie.

Prairie provides important values to people. It contains dozens of animals, hundreds of different plants, and thousands of insects. These species provide genetic diversity important to agriculture and medicine. Planted grasslands do not begin to match the diversity found in native prairie.

GIF -- Picture of a Photographer In addition to its importance to wildlife, prairie is also crucial for soil and water conservation. Prairie provides a reminder of our rural and pioneer heritage; it provides recreational activities such as hunting, hiking, and birdwatching; and it offers living laboratories for scientific research. Prairie also provides economic benefits through cattle grazing, haying, and native seed harvesting. When we lose prairie, we lose part of our natural heritage, and we lose a valuable resource.

Native Prairie Management

"Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." - Aldo Leopold

GIF -- Picture of a Sandpiper Wise use of our prairie resources can preserve our natural heritage, while also benefiting mankind. The prairie ecosystem is sustained and maintained by fire, grazing, drought, and other natural forces. The natural forces which shaped our original prairie can be adapted to conserve and manage prairie areas today.

To improve or maintain your prairie's health and diversity, it is important to be aware of the type of prairie that you own. Management treatments will have different impacts on various prairie types, which differ due to soil, moisture, slope, and other factors. Be aware of what plants make up your prairie and what factors influence it.


GIF -- Picture of Burning Prairie Fires once swept across hundreds of miles of the unbroken prairie landscape. Prairie can thrive with fire. Unlike trees, the growing points of prairie grasses and plants are below ground, protected from fire. Fire removes built-up litter from dead prairie vegetation and can consume sprouting trees and shrubs which may otherwise overrun prairie.

Burning can be an effective, economical means to rejuvenate grasslands, reduce undesirable plants, and set back shrub invasion. Forage is generally more palatable, nutritious and more abundant after a burn. Burning removes dead vegetation and litter which can build up and reduce plant vigor. Undesirable non-native plants such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass can be reduced by burning during the correct season.

Grazing and Rest

GIF -- Picture of a Bison Prairie plants are also adapted to grazing. Native grazers such as bison helped maintain diverse prairie habitats by altering the vegetation height and density. These animals grazed at different intensities and frequencies, creating patches of heavily to lightly grazed prairie. This patchiness provided different habitats for various plant and animal species.

Grazing can improve prairie. However, continuous heavy grazing can reduce the health of a prairie and increase nondesirable plants and noxious weeds. A native prairie pasture should be stocked to balance with the available forage supply. Consider the timing of your grazing to improve your rangeland. Consider a "rest-rotation" system, which includes periods of rest from grazing.

Because native grazers migrated over vast areas, they often left areas of prairie idle for a length of time. Thus, prairie is also adapted to periods of rest from grazing and fire. Continuous grazing can reduce the abundance of highly desirable forage plants while increasing the amount of nondesirable forage plants. Periods of rest will increase plant vigor and will also improve the wildlife habitat of a prairie.

Native Prairie Conservation Alternatives

" there is considerable body of public opinion in favor of keeping for our children's children, as a priceless heritage, all the delicate beauty of the lesser and all the burly majesty of the mightier forms of wild life" - Theodore Roosevelt

GIF -- Picture of Owls Because much of our prairie is gone, it is important that we protect remaining areas for ourselves and future generations to enjoy. We must ensure that our prairie resource is wisely managed and remains intact. There are alternatives available for landowners which provide a source of income and maintain native prairie. Listed below are a number of programs which exist in North Dakota. Please contact the agency or organization for more information on these programs. Some programs may not be available in all regions of the state.

Grassland or Conservation Easements

Mid-length easements, with landowner buy-back provision, which protects wetland/prairie complexes from conversion.

          Contact: North Dakota Wetlands Trust
Payment for perpetual agreement which protects prairie from conversion.
          Contact: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
                   Ducks Unlimited
                   The Nature Conservancy

Land Acquisition

Acquisition of prairie; focus is on areas associated with wetlands or areas with high biodiversity values.

          Contact: The Nature Conservancy
                   U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
                   North Dakota Wetlands Trust

Natural Areas Registry Program

Voluntary conservation agreement which is non-binding. Technical assistance is available to landowners.

          Contact: The Nature Conservancy and North Dakota Parks and Recreation 

Grazing Systems

Provides cost share for implementation of beneficial grazing systems.

          Contact: North Dakota Wetlands Trust
                   U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program

Provides financial incentives for developing wildlife habitat.

          Contact: Natural Resources
                   Conservation Service

Grazing Management Technical Assistance

Provides technical assistance for grazing management systems.

          Contact: Natural Resources
                   Conservation Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

Offers financial and technical help for practices which improve or maintain natural resources such as prairie.

          Contact: Natural Resources
                   Conservation Service

Grasslands for Tomorrow Program

Provides assistance for fencing and water developments for grazing systems.

          Contact: Ducks Unlimited

Habitat Plot Program

Provides annual lease payment for idling prairie or other wildlife habitat.

          Contact: North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Agency Offices and Phone Numbers
Ducks Unlimited                                The Nature Conservancy
3502 Franklin Avenue                           P.O. Box 1156
Bismarck, ND 58501                             Bismarck, ND 58502-1156
701-258-5599                                   701-222-8464

North Dakota Game and Fish Department          U.S.D.A. Natural Resources
100 North Bismarck Expressway                  Conservation Service 
Bismarck, ND 58501                             220 East Rosser Ave.
701-328-6300                                   Bismarck, ND 58501
Nature Preserves Program                       U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department   1500 Capitol Avenue
1835 Bismarck Expressway                       Bismarck, ND 58501
Bismarck, ND 58504                             Private Lands Program
701-328-5357                                    701-250-4418
                                               Realty Program
North Dakota Wetlands Trust
P.O. Box 3175
Bismarck, ND 58502

The North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department's facilities, programs and employment procedures are open to all, regardless of age, sex, race, color, disability, religion, national origin, or political affiliation. For an alternate format of this publication (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.), contact:
           North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department
           1835 Bismarck Expressway
           Bismarck, North Dakota 58504

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