Thursday, June 30, 2016

Minnesota prairie restorers recruit a surprising ally: cows

Records say when the first plows sliced through the great Midwestern prairie, a popping sound rang through the air like a volley of pistol shots. It was the sound of millions of roots snapping against the plow's steel blade. Vast tallgrass prairie once covered about a third of Minnesota's landscape. But less than 2 percent of that native grassland remains, much of it plowed under for agricultural use. "The places where you still have prairie and grass, are places where it was very difficult, or unprofitable to farm," Steve Chaplin, prairie conservation coordinator for Minnesota and Dakotas for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, said he stood on a stretch of prairie outside Moorhead. Now, though, state agencies and private conservation groups are pushing ahead on plans to preserve tracts land -- and cattlemen and their cows are playing a surprisingly important role. Preserving prairie has meant figuring out ways to mimic certain elements of the environment before settlers moved in. Conservationists say cattle can mimic much of the grazing patterns of bison, which once covered the prairie and whose presence was vital to the ecosystem. "We, the conservation community in general, have been saying cows and conservation don't work together," said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "After further research ... we've figured out cows and conservation can work very very well together."...more