Preserving grasslands takes partnerships. The federation is working with multiple partners to accomplish its conservation goals in the North Dakota Badlands. These partners are Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and US Forest Service who started a North Dakota Badlands Restoration Project on private and public lands in 2019. In Phase 1, they worked through the Joint Chiefs Landscape Restoration Partnership (JC) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) programs to do cost share agreements with private landowners where the programs pay $240/ acre to support private landowners. This still leaves private landowners to pay the rest for the treatment. In Phase 2 of the North Dakota Badlands Restoration Project; NDWF, Mule Deer Foundation, National Wildlife Turkey Foundation, and ND Natural Resources Trust are trying to encourage landowners to participate by awarding an additional $100/ acre to offset their contribution to the project.
The focus of the project is Rocky Mountain Juniper removal on rangelands. The plan is to find landowners in Billings, Dunn, McKenzie and Slope counties who see a need to remove the juniper. The project will reclaim shaded out forage, increase drought resiliency, reduce wildfire severity, and improve landowner’s access to their land.
Several methods of treatment were used in Phase 1 such as: manual labor, mastication (reducing the size of woody vegetation by grinding, shredding, or chopping) with heavy equipment, and stump cutting and piling. In Phase 1, it was found that mastication was the most effective method of treatment. The plan for Phase 2 over the next three years is to treat 1500 acres of private land. NRCS cost share allows for $240/ acre to support private landowners however the actual cost of this treatment is often more than $400/ acre depending on density of juniper, slope of land, and other difficulties of working in the Badlands region. This is why the ND Wildlife Federation is working with other non-profit organizations to offset the cost to landowners.
Why are Rocky Mountain juniper a problem you may be asking?
Rocky Mountain junipers are a native species, but historically the evergreen trees have mostly only grown on north facing draws and near butte summits in the Badlands. Before European-American settlement, frequent natural wildfires kept the trees in check. But over the past 100 years as the open range was fenced for grazing and farming, and fires were controlled – junipers have spread into grasslands. An 8 ½-inch diameter juniper tree can consume 30-35 gallons of water a day. The Badlands get only about 14 inches of precipitation a year, and large junipers can consume nearly all the precipitation that falls on them in a year.
On a recent trip, I went out with Mike Gerbig, NRCS CDU Supervisor out of the Dickinson office, to look at sites that were a part of Phase 1 in the project. We looked at 3 project areas on private land and 1 large 2000 acres project area on Forest Service land.
The April 2021 wildfire in Theodore Roosevelt National Park which approached Medora helped producers see the threat of wildfire and how grasses come back after the fire. The dry summer, dry fall, and not a lot of snow that winter created drought conditions followed by a windy and hot spring, all made for perfect wildfire conditions. Producers and landowners in the area who have been ranching for a long time also see how the juniper numbers have increased in areas that are not typically juniper habitat. Juniper should be found in north facing draws so that is normal but in the past 80-100 years the junipers are increasing in the waterways, the uplands and even south aspect hillsides. This increase can cause future loss of forage, increase invasive and noxious weed species, and be a hazard during wildfires.
The first stop in our tour was south of Painted Canyon visitors center. Juniper removal was done through EQIP and the landowner hired a construction company from Dickinson to do the work in the winter months. A track hoe mounted masticator was used to mulch up the juniper. That work cost NRCS $240/ acre. Producer $80/ acre. In a steeper area cost was NRCS $240/ acre and producer $100/ acre. This producer saw the need to control juniper encroachment. He has seen how the juniper has been invading his uplands, creek bottoms, and southern facing slopes. These are areas where historically, juniper would not be located. An area to the west of the property had a wildfire in 1920s and we could see how juniper were less thick but young stands were becoming established. The tour took us to two other landowners’ properties in Billings County. We looked at 100 acres on Frank’s Creek Road that will be treated this winter by the same contractor out of Dickinson. The second site is in an area called Mike’s creek. The landowner for this property is using chainsaw to cut down the juniper and then will follow up with a pile burn in the winter. They are also trying to save the juniper logs for fenceposts. Using a chainsaw is a longer process but can be effective since juniper does not resprout from the roots like some invasive trees. Another stop, Mike Gerbig drove by was Forest Service land managed out of Dickinson office. Juniper removal has occurred there using a skid steer with a masticator head to grind up the juniper. Forest Service has treated over 2000 acres in the Mike’s Creek area.
Badlands Restoration Phase Two project will manage 8,500 acres of juniper encroachment and ponderosa pine stands within the 1.3 million acres of badlands areas of western North Dakota to reduce the threat of wildfire near the communities of Amidon, Belfield, Fairfield, Grassy Buttes, Keene, Mandaree, and Medora, ND. Wildfire risk reduction treatments are also planned on and adjacent to Ft. Berthold Reservation. Treatments will also reduce wildfire risk to oil and gas development on private, state, and federal lands, while improving grasslands habitat for bighorn sheep and other native wildlife. Additionally, this project will improve water and soil conditions and provide improved forage quality and quantity for livestock grazing. Conservation practices will build upon the first phase of this project, which treated 1,200 acres of juniper and ponderosa pine stands with an additional 10,500 acres under contract to be treated.
Working to maintain our grasslands takes partnerships. Helping offset landowners’ costs will benefit wildlife, ranchers, hunters, and balance the badlands ecosystem.
For more information contact Cara Greger, Western ND Conservation Coordinator, ND Wildlife Federation.