Benefits from Every Angle: the Santee Sioux’s Land Restoration Work

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A mid-August view from the “High Bench” before restoration work started.

They call it the High Bench: The view from a prairie ridge south of Santee overlooks a natural heritage of blazing star, goldenrod, little bluestem, and oaks. But the beautiful view is threatened and the Santee Sioux Nation has partnered with multiple conservation agencies to restore the tallgrass prairie and oak woodlands. The restoration work started in October 2018 and will benefit people, plants, and wildlife in multiple ways.

Historically, frequent wildfires maintained open prairies and sunny oak woodlands along the Missouri River by preventing the spread of eastern red-cedar and other brush. Lack of fire in the woodlands has promoted the invasion of shade-tolerant native trees and shrubs, such as hackberry and dogwood, and non-native species such as Siberian elm and buckthorn. The now-dense trees shade out native grasses and wildflowers on the woodland floor and reduce sunlight needed by the next generation of oaks to sprout and grow.

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Rough blazing star and big bluestem thrive in tallgrass prairie on the project site near the edge of the oak woodland.
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Dogwood and eastern redcedar are expanding from the woodland, displacing native prairie plants.
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Eastern redcedar crowds oaks, limiting the amount of light reaching the forest floor, which results in bare ground.

To restore these plant communities, the Santee Sioux Nation partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Northern Prairies Land Trust, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Forest Service to plan 122 acres of cedar removal and 207 acres of woodland thinning. These projects would allow the Santee to reintroduce prescribed fire into the area. The project builds on previous restoration work by the Santee Sioux. Using the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Tribe has controlled invasive brush and adjusted grazing practices to support tallgrass prairie health and the use of prescribed fire.

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The Santee Hazardous Fuels Program crew is working to restore tallgrass prairie and oak woodland to benefit people, plants, and wildlife.

Prescribed fire is a familiar tool for the Santee Tribe. The Santee Hazardous Fuels crew often conducts prescribed fires on its own and other tribal lands in Nebraska. After some training, crew members were able to add tree identification and forest management techniques to their résumés.

Duwayne Traversie, BIA Fuels Specialist, said that employees of the Fuels Program are strengthening leadership abilities and developing career skills in natural resource management through this project. Theo Wright, a crew member, agrees: “training opportunities are more limited elsewhere. [This program] is more diverse and opens more paths.” Brittany Iron Shell, crew supervisor, adds, “I love science and being outdoors and it’s cool to combine it all into one career.”

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Chris Wood (NPLT) and Steve Rasmussen (NFS) provide training in tree identification and forest thinning to the Santee Hazardous Fuels Crew.

The woodland and prairie work will not only benefit native plants, but also game species such as turkeys, squirrels, and white-tailed deer, and rare animals, such as the northern long-eared bat, Bell’s vireo, and monarch and regal fritillary butterfly.

During his lifetime, crew member Jeremy Archampeau has observed a decline in traditional medicinal plants in the area. “I am interested to see if the project helps those medicinal plants come back,” he said.  Crew supervisor Leslie Brownrigg is excited about the effects of their work. “I see more opportunities [on Santee land] to do the same thing: getting more of the landscape back to its natural state, opening up rangeland and bringing back native grasses.”

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Crew members remove dogwood brush from the oak woodland understory. Photo credit: Brittany Iron Shell

Perhaps the most exciting results cannot be seen from the High Bench. The project’s social and economic benefits will strengthen community connections to conservation and the land. Not only were crew members kept employed during a slow time of year, but the crew’s size was actually expanded for the project. Hank Miller, Math and Science Division Head at Nebraska Indian Community College hopes to use the project for environmental monitoring sites for his students. Trees cut from the woodland are available to tribal members for home heating. Brush-free and healthy grasslands and forests will benefit the tribal ranching program and buffer the town of Santee from high intensity wildfires. Crew member David Freemont sums it up well: “I am happy to be part of this project because it will have so many positive impacts.”

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Leslie Brownrigg and Brittany Iron Shell place a post to mark where the crew will take photos to monitor progress on the project over time.
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A regal fritillary we found on the project site. This butterfly is rapidly disappearing from many parts of its range. It depends on healthy tallgrass prairie.

This project is also an effort of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project and NGPC’s WILD Nebraska Habitat Program. In addition to the partners mentioned above, funding is provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Authors:
Jennifer Corman – Northern Prairies Land Trust
Cassidy Wessel – Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

“Falling” for Prescribed Fire

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A landowner burns his grassland on Oct. 25, 2019 in north-central Nebraska

On October 25, 2019 a crew of 20 friends, neighbors, and volunteer firefighters, including Northern Prairies Land Trust biologists, teamed up to burn 290 acres of pasture in the Middle Niobrara Biologically Unique Landscape (north-central Nebraska).  The burn is unusual because ranchers in the area have been hesitant to burn grasslands in the fall. They worry that the loss of plant cover could cause sandy soils to blow away over the long winter.

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The mixed-grass sand prairie on Sept. 13, 2019 prior to prescribed fire. Fire will burn off old thatch and “decadent” little bluestem growth, allowing more wildflowers and more palatable grass to grow.

The landowners and their grazing tenant have burned before and enjoyed multiple benefits from their prescribed fires. They appreciate that the burns improve grass production and control eastern redcedar trees and seeds before they grow tall enough to reduce grazing potential and increase tree removal costs. This year they decided to experiment with some different timing.

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A couple days after the October 2019 burn taken from the same spot as the photo above, looking down the burn line. Notice the uncontrolled cedar growth on the neighbor’s property across the fence, negatively affecting grassland wildlife habitat and grazing potential.

Burning in the fall allowed the cattle producers to avoid the pressures of spring calving season that can interfere with burning. It was easier for them to find help and the fall weather was more predictable. By including fall and early winter in their burn plans, they had more opportunities to burn. As of February 2020, they have not observed any soil movement on the burned area.

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Cedar seedlings the day of the October 2019 burn.
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The same cedar seedlings slowly turning orange a week later, indicating that they have died.

Burning in the fall has benefits for woodlands as well. Woodlands burn better in the fall than in the spring because dry, freshly fallen leaves carry the fire. Woodland burns control the number of cedars in the forest, especially in areas where terrain limits the ability to cut or spray cedar seedlings as they emerge. Fewer cedars in the forest means fewer cedars spreading out into grasslands and allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor. More sunlight means more forage for cattle and more native plants to support pollinators and insects in general, which are the anchor for woodland food webs. The direct sunlight is necessary for the next generation of oak and pine trees to grow.

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Fire moves through grass in a pine savannah in November 2018.
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Northern Prairies Land Trust staff light leaf litter in a fall oak woodland burn in November 2016.
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Fire moves through leaf litter at Ponca State Park in northeast Nebraska in December 2017.

Hunters take note: exposed acorns in forests burned in the fall are a magnet for deer and turkey throughout the remaining fall and winter. A game camera left on a tree during one of our burns in November 2016 documented deer using the burn area the same night of the burn, undeterred by the unusual activity. In the spring, those same deer and turkey will be drawn to the burn because the dark-colored ground is the first place to warm and green up. In the long-term, healthy forests produce abundant acorn crops for game animals and insects for turkey broods.

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A woodland burn is captured on a game camera in November 2016 at 7:24 pm.
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Deer were back on the burn before the sun had risen the next day. Notice the bright embers in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We benefit the most native plants, pollinators, and other wildlife species by burning at different seasons over the years, including spring, growing season, and fall burns. Our grasslands and woodlands need fire to be healthy. Different plants and animals benefit most from fire at different times of the year. By changing fire timing in a pasture or woodland over time, we can maximize our cattle production and our biodiversity.

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This is the same woodland in the game camera image above, the following spring. This ranch had invested in cedar removal from the oak woodland several years previously and the burn was follow-up maintenance on that investment with excellent cedar sapling kill.

Interested in burning for improved cattle production and wildlife habitat? Consider joining your neighbors in a local prescribed fire association.

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Ranchers of the Niobrara Valley Prescribed Burn Association team up to burn a complex of oak woodland, pine savannah, and sand prairie in November 2018.

Friends of the Big Sioux River and Northern Prairies Land Trust Join Forces

Friends of the Big Sioux River (FBSR) and Northern Prairies Land Trust (NPLT) are excited to announce their new organizational partnership. By this partnership the two 501(c)(3) nonprofit conservation entitles will work together to advance their common goals of land and water conservation within South Dakota and to promote a conservation ethic in the region.

The organizations will be headed by Travis Entenman as director while maintaining their separate boards, goals, and identities. The partnership between the two organizations will develop and advocate local policy, increase fundraising efforts (memberships, donations, and grants), land protection (easements and conservation toolkit), water protection projects, and overall awareness and education on how these environments are interlinked and their effect on agriculture, economic development, habitat stability, and climate change.  At the same time, the new relationship will help maximize administrative efficiencies.

FBSR seeks to make the Big Sioux River and its tributaries swimmable, in keeping with the Clean Water Act, for the health and enjoyment of everyone in the community. Community involvement is critical to achieving this vision and FBSR seeks win-win solutions through strong partnerships and coalitions, with all parts of the community, government, and other stakeholders.

NPLT works to facilitate and encourage land and water conservation practices by private landowners in both South Dakota and Nebraska. NPLT is organized as a land trust in order to accept and hold conservation easements when private landowners choose that tool, but the activities go far beyond those of a simple land trust. NPLT is committed to the proposition that private lands can be managed in a way that achieves the goals of private landowners while simultaneously serving the public need to conserve natural resources and sustain rural and agricultural communities.

For more information regarding each organization, visit http://www.friendsofthebigsiouxriver.org and http://www.northernprairies.org.

In Memoriam: John H. Davidson

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It is with great sadness that we share that John Davidson passed away last week. We will remember John as an unshakeable conservationist and humble teacher with a deep understanding of the political and social architecture we need in the US to sustain healthy land and water. As a leader at NPLT and in close partnership with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, he worked to achieve real, on-the-ground results to restore and conserve grasslands and woodlands in Nebraska and South Dakota.

We re-posted one of his articles below. You can read another article by John Davidson on how  prairie conservation is vital in our fight against climate change here: http://www.prairiefirenewspaper.com/2010/06/north-americas-great-carbon-ocean

ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE IN OUR NORTHERN GREAT PLAINS

At Northern Prairies we visit each of our conservation projects at least annually.  For the most part, this is a delightful exercise.  We renew friendships with private landowners who are dedicated to protecting the conservation values of their land.  During these visits we are enriched by hours spent walking on healthy and productive grasslands.

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John Davidson (left) and Bob Warrick (right) walk through a prairie easement in Pierce County, Nebraska.

Recently I, John Davidson, walked on a section (640 acres) of native grassland which is protected by a conservation easement held by Northern Prairies.  The land supports healthy cattle grazing and native wildlife of all kinds, including Prairie Chicken.  The owners of this land view protection of the native grasslands as an inter-generational family legacy.  Not too many years ago I could stand on a high point and observe that the surrounding land included ample amounts of native grasslands, stocked with healthy livestock. This year, when I stood on that same place, I saw that our protected native habitat was surrounded on all sides by corn.  Our conservation grassland had become a remote island in a sea of corn.

This is not an isolated incident, but is repeated time and again.  Fields are plowed to the edge of rivers and streams. Formerly rich wetlands are drained with subsurface plumbing as complex as that found in cities. Lands that were formerly considered to be marginal for anything other than grazing are now intensely cultivated, right up to the edge of roads, and often without regard to the resulting erosion and exposure to drought. Because grasslands are closely associated with wetlands, the prairie potholes which formerly defined the Great Plains are disappearing.

Statistics back up these observations. Between 2006 and 2011 about 1,400,000 acres of grass were plowed for corn and soybean production. Currently, the rate of grassland conversion in the northern plains is more than 5% annually.  These are conversion rates not seen since the 1920s, and are comparable to the deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a parallel course, we are losing wetlands at a rate that easily exceeds 15,000 acres a year, resulting in degraded water quality, reduced wildlife habitat, and the inevitable increase in the severity and frequency of flood events downstream.

At a time when nations are struggling to reduce carbon emissions, the plowing of native grasses releases vast amounts of carbon which would otherwise be safely sequestered in the ground.

Proponents of this wastage cite the short-term financial rewards.  They also claim that they are “feeding the world,” which is an asinine red herring, unless the poor of the world are to be fed hamburgers and barbecue. The long-term costs to society will be borne by future generations, and the poor of the world will remain unfed.

This is an environmental catastrophe that will not be brought under control until citizens speak out in large enough number to be heard.

John Davidson

 

Cedars up in Smoke this March

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Al and Ev rallied 18 friends and neighbors to conduct a successful prescribed fire on March 27th in their Sandhills prairie pastures in Rock County, NE. They burned 322 acres to kill cedar seedlings in their pasture. In addition to controlling cedar trees, the burn will improve pasture quality for grazing and improve wildlife habitat.

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Lighting a test fire to begin a 322 acre Sandhills burn in Rock County in March 2019. Friends, neighbors, fire department volunteers, and agency partners assisted on a safe burn that met its objectives.

Participants gathered in the morning to discuss the plan and line up equipment they had brought. Al led the crew as the Burn Boss. Ev provided a delicious lunch for everyone and took her place on the crew in a pickup with a water tank and hose. The fire started shortly before noon and finished around 5 pm with a dramatic smoke plume. Weather conditions remained within the safe range (in “prescription”) for the amount and type of grass and trees present on the site. The crew monitored wind, humidity, and temperature throughout the day.

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Al and Ev had thoroughly planned the burn and prepared over the last year. Tasks included mowing and raking burn boundaries, clearing the mow lines of cottonwood limbs, and filling water tanks. Last summer cattle grazed the area but for fewer days than usual to grow grass fuel for the burn.

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Many thanks to the crew that made the burn possible! With their help, the burn was efficient and safe with no major accidents, injuries, or fire escapes. The Bassett and Newport Fire Departments both contributed equipment and a couple of volunteers to the burn. Prescribed fires make great training opportunities for fire departments. Staff of various natural resource conservation groups that support prescribed fire also assisted, including Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), Northern Prairies Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the Upper Elkhorn NRD, and Pheasants Forever.

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In addition to killing cedar seedlings, the landowners and grazing tenant are looking forward to improved pasture quality for cattle grazing and high quality grasslands for wildlife, including the greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse we have observed on-site and the American burying beetles observed in surveys nearby. The prairie contains a mosaic of wet and dry sandy soils which should be excellent American burying beetle habitat. Changes in vegetation structure and increased forb diversity and abundance due to the prescribed burn could also benefit loggerhead shrikes, long-billed curlews, monarch butterflies, regal fritillaries, and many other grassland-dependent wildlife species.

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The crew puts finishing touches on part of the burn.
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A dramatic smoke plume concludes the burn at the end of the day.
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The goals of the 322 acre burn: control cedar trees, improve grazing for cattle, and sustain high quality grasslands for wildlife.