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  • Writer's pictureNorth Dakota Wildlife Federation

Science behind rangeland habitat for ranchers and wildlife.

Grassland management is habitat management. Trying to figure out the best way to maintain and improve wildlife habitat while managing cattle on the landscape is a big part of western North Dakota heritage. Out in the west, landowners have been doing this for years. The USDA-Agriculture Research Service Livestock and Range Research Laboratory at Fort Keogh in Miles City, Montana and the Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney, MT conduct research on rangelands in the Northern mixed grass prairie to help both private and public land managers who all have the same goal of healthy grasslands which equals healthy habitat. A USDA research station since 1924, Fort Keogh manages 55,000 acres of native grasslands and manages 1500 head of cattle. On a recent visit to learn more about their research and how it applies to western North Dakota, I spent a couple of days exploring Fort Keogh with Rangeland Management Specialist Jennifer Muscha, Range Technician Dustin Strong, and Biological Science Technician Fraser Watson from the Sidney, MT ARS station.

The first morning was spent on a research plot where they are studying fire effects on Russian Olive plants at different growth stages. Using fire to fight invasive nonnative trees has been done for years but not much quantitative research has been done on the effects at different life cycles of the plant. The research station has done other work on Russian Olives and this project builds on that knowledge.

Dustin took me on a tour of plots where they have done forage quality studies after prescribed burns. The plots are in the Upper Cottonwood pasture, north of the Yellowstone River, where the research station has been gathering data for the last 20 years. The plots are burned seasonally (spring, summer, or fall) and receive variable precipitation amounts. The native prairie is dominated by rhizomatous perennial native grasses and the research center has found producers do not need to wait extended periods of time to start grazing after fire. With adequate moisture after fire, grazing does not kill or damage plants. The researchers have seen the best results in increased forage quality and production the following growing season after a fall burn. They have also seen a decrease in cheatgrass and other invasive cool season grasses after a fall burn. It appears that part of this detrimental effect to invasive annual grasses may be due to the burn killing the seeds on the soil surface and any seedlings that may have germinated. Researchers have observed an increase in the use of burned areas by sharp-tailed grouse so there is anecdotal evidence of an increase in wildlife use. Other interesting research shows that previously unpalatable grasses become more palatable due to prescribed fire, such as purple three-awn.

Jennifer Muscha is collaboratively working on a Precision Agriculture project; part of the project is using drones to measure vegetation production on a pasture level. I was able to accompany her on a drone flight. This is a part of a larger research project using innovative technology to collectively manage cattle and the rangeland resource. Jennifer also shared research that the station is doing where they are also looking at basal cover and species composition of permanent 1 m2 quadrats put in place in the 1930s and comparing the change in vegetation over time in the last 90 years. Jennifer has vast knowledge of native plants in the grassland area, so I was able to work with her on my plant identification skills. She also worked with me to hone my eye as to what is happening on the land, what plants are preferable to cattle, and how the land is being used by the livestock and wildlife on the Fort.

During my visit, I was able to connect with Fraser Watson from the Sidney, MT office. Scientists in that office have been working on research on Forest Service lands located on the Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota. In the future, I will be going out on sites where they are looking at the effects of Rocky Mountain Juniper removal. They are also comparing different techniques used to see which is most effective and what happens to the plant composition with each treatment.

Land management in western North Dakota is complicated and takes lots of partners to accomplish a positive outcome. Research centers are working to provide producers and managers the tools and knowledge to back up management decisions on private and public lands. Learning more of what they are finding out helps us be better stewards of the land and provides me a fun day on the prairie identifying plants.

article by Cara Greger, NDWF Western ND Conservation Coordinator. article reviewed by Jennifer Muscha, Fort Keogh


Research on Russian Olive

Research on forage nutrition and effects

Research on Precision Agriculture

The National Program 215: Grass, Forage, and Rangeland Agroecosystems has a Strategic Vision which states:

Grass, Forage, and Rangeland Agroecosystems

This program develops and integrates improved management practices, germplasm, and land-use strategies to optimize economic viability and environmental enhancement in managing vegetation, livestock and natural resources on private and public lands. Research activities include: enhancing conservation and restoration of ecosystems and agroecosystems through improvements based on the application of ecological principles; improving management of fire, invasive weeds, grazing, global change and other agents of ecological change; developing grazing-based livestock systems that reduce risk and increase profitability in existing and emerging markets; developing improved grass and forage legume germplasm for livestock, conservation, turf and bioenergy and bioproduct systems; and improving decision-support systems including improving inventory, monitoring, and assessment tools.

Mission Statement from Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory: Sidney, MT

Develop and implement ecologically based strategies, technologies, and products for the sustainable management of insects, pests, and weeds in crops and rangeland. Emphasis is on biological and cultural management strategies that enhance profitability and environmental quality.


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