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Last Call For Tallgrass In North Dakota

A Conversation With Bryan Stotts

District Ranger For the Sheyenne National Grassland

Sheyenne National Grassland district ranger Bryan Stotts spoke to the author about the future of these grasslands. A few of Stotts' observations follow.

Domek: What's the biggest issue facing the Sheyenne National Grassland in the near future?

Stotts: Without a doubt, the biggest issue is ecosystem health, what we often call rangeland health in this part of the country. Right now, we have a very unhealthy ecosystem. We've got far too many exotic plants, like leafy spurge, invading the Sheyenne. We've got too many woody shrubs and trees, which have increased in acreage due to fire suppression. And we really haven't adjusted cattle grazing for a long time. Adjusting cattle grazing doesn't necessarily mean adjusting the numbers of cattle on the grassland. What it does mean is changing how cattle are grazed, the timing and duration of grazing. Right now, we aren't grazing at a sustainable level. We have to balance ecosystem health with livestock grazing, We've got to take that on. But we're a small district with a tiny budget.

Domek: Elaborate on ecosystem health a bit more.

Stotts: Ecosystem management is looking at the entire landscape with all its parts, not each individual part or site. It's tougher to do it this way, but the linkages between the parts are often the most important components of the ecosystem. It's blending the needs of people, like grazing cattle and recreating, in such a way that the ecosystem remains biologically diverse and ecologically healthy, while still providing productive and sustainable resources, such as grassland forage.

Really, ecosystem health has to be number one. Long-term sustainable grazing is dependent on ecosystem health. Without ecosystem health, we can kiss livestock grazing good-bye. Instead, we can manage a huge weed patch of leafy spurge. Everything we ask of the grassland depends on its health. So first we have to get rid of exotic plants and get fire back into the system. And we've got to reconsider the ways we graze livestock. Grazing can help plants or hurt plants. To manage this amount of prairie and not use cattle, I don't think we could afford it. Cattle have unique functions. Livestock are important out here. We just have to adjust how we graze them. And we could run bison, too. Conceivably, bison could run by, a livestock permittee on the Sheyenne National Grassland.

Domek: Many people say that the Sheyenne National Grassland is special because of its tallgrass prairie components. But aren't there other tallgrass prairies in North Dakota?

Stotts: "Oh sure, there's a few, but they're very small. They're what we call "postage stamp" prairies, often less than a square mile in size. North Dakota probably has a handful of these postage stamp prairies. And Minnesota may have quite a few small tallgrass prairies. But the Sheyenne National Grassland is by far, the largest in contiguous size. We've got over a hundred square miles of tallgrass prairie right here. No one else can say that.

Domek: Are there some rare plants and animals on the Sheyenne?

Stotts: Yes. The greater prairie chicken is rare. So is the western prairie fringed orchid. The orchid is a federally-recognized threatened species. We've got some rare prairie butterflies, like the Dakota skipper and the regal fritillary. All told, we have 42 sensitive species, 36 of which are plants. That's roughly a quarter of all the identified sensitive plant species in Region 1. (Region 1 for the forest service includes Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and northwestern South Dakota).

And we have common species sort of limited in number for this area, like moose and elk. They're plentiful elsewhere, but not here. Moose are hunted on the Sheyenne National Grassland, and elk wander in once in a while. We have some suitable habitat for them.

Domek: People talk about how the prairies evolved through disturbances, like drought, fire and the effects of grazing by bison. Do these factors affect the Sheyenne National Grassland today?

Stotts: We all know about drought. The classic example is the 1930s. The "dirty thirties" really did a number on the Sheyenne. We had lots of sandy "blow-outs," which over the years have revegetated quite well. There will always be some blow-outs here. That's okay. Blow-outs are a part of the landscape. We just don't want the grassland to be destroyed through mismanagement.

Fire and bison? Historically, I believe fire played a bigger role than bison. People out here just don't talk about the settlers walking over the backs of bison for miles and miles on the tallgrass prairies. Bison were much more numerous farther west. Fire, however, was much more important. Every three to five years, a good fire would whip across the prairie, bringing with it a process to rejuvenate the ecosystem. For too long,we Americans have been suppressing fire. Finally, we're starting to recognize its vital importance. We need to get more controlled burning back on the Sheyenne National Grassland.

And we've got grazing, using cattle, not bison. For thousands of years, grazing has helped shape the Great Plains. Today, both cattle and bison could have a role. Whether you use a riding mower or a push mower, you still get the grass mowed.

Domek: What will the Sheyenne National Grassland look like 10 years from now?

Stotts: I hope we have more vigorous grass communities with more native species. I see leafy spurge kind of where it is now, but more flea beetles, which we recently introduced, battling spurge back. I also want people to know the Sheyenne National Grassland, to visit it and come to value it. As long as we see the need to take care of it and value it, I'm happy. The Sheyenne National Grassland is not 'nobody's land.' It's everyone's land, because it's public land, paid for and managed through tax dollars.

I also see more recreation in the future, but with the increased recreation, I also see more problems. Kind of the grassland being 'loved to death.' But that's why the forest service is here - for people. To minimize the effects of recreation - like beating down the slopes when people drive off-road or leaving piles of garbage everywhere - well, people have to value tallgrass.

Domek: So what is the value of restoring the tallgrass of the Sheyenne?

Stotts: The value of the Sheyenne National Grassland is different for everyone. Some value grazing, some recreation, some the diversity of plant and animal life here, and the beauty of the tallgrass. And maybe it's the rarity that makes the Sheyenne National Grassland valuable. The rarity of tallgrass. Diamonds, for example, are more valuable than sandstone, because diamonds are so rare. But if people don't value tallgrass -- if it's not important to them -- then I can't convince them to save it.

I guess it's an educational process. You won't take care of what you don't appreciate, and you won't appreciate what you don't understand. As a forest service employee, I need to help people understand the value of tallgrass. First I have to let them know it's here, then I've got to help them figure out their own reasons to keep it in a healthy, native condition.

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