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Mikkel Pates, Forum News Service, Published October 03 2013

Chase Lake district manager praises grazing

WOODWORTH, N.D. – Neil Shook, manager of the Chase Lake Wetland Management District, tells this story about a group of bird-watchers who once toured it.

“They saw cattle grazing. They said, ‘Why do you have cows out here? Cows are bad.’ I said, ‘No, cows are good.’ ”

The birders weren’t convinced. So, Shook took them into a section of the district that hadn’t been grazed since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over the land in the early 1960s. He and the birders looked closely and found lots of weeds, only a few native flowers and a thick mat of old, dead grass that hampered the growth of new grass.

Then Shook took the birders into a section that had been grazed. Again, they looked closely at the ground.

“We could see all these native orbs, native flowers, the grass starting to come back. It really clicked with the birders,” he says.

Shook, in his fourth year as manager of the district, has put into practice something that ranchers in the Upper Midwest have known for generations.

This summer, for the first time since the 1960s, sheep grazed on some sections of the district. It was the third straight summer cattle grazed on some tracts there.

“The prairie evolved with grazing. It needs grazing,” Shook says. “It’s not just the actual grazing, the eating of those plants. It’s also the hoof action on that soil. It’s also the nitrogen those animals leave. It’s the whole gamut.”

Before grazing, “Some of this (grassland) was weedy junk. It’s so much better now,” he says.

Shook, an Iowa native, had spent most of his professional career in eastern North Dakota, where cropland is common and grassland is not.

In contrast, Chase Lake, in central North Dakota, “has grass. It has cows. I realized I had to get cows on our stuff (wetland grass),” he says.

Shook knew right away that he needed to work with ranchers to achieve his goals for Chase Lake.

“I’m a biologist. I’m not a rancher. I don’t know squat about livestock. But I know prairie. I know what I want this stuff to look like,” he says.

Ranchers, in turn, “know what their animals can and can’t do,” he says.

Shook is working with about 25 ranchers, known as cooperators, who have cattle grazing on the wetland district.