J. Clark Salyer NWR Grassland Trail
Welcome to J. Clark Slayer National Wildlife Refuge. Today's tour takes you through 5 miles of rolling prairie known as the grassland trail. As you view the wide variety of plant and animal life, you'll also learn about management practices used to restore and maintain native grasslands. As you begin, try to imagine yourself in another place and time when the buffalo roamed freely and the wind-swept grasses stretched as far as the eye could see.
All grasslands in the United States have certain characteristics in common. They generally exist on flat or rolling terrain and have similar soil - slightly alkaline and very fertile.
There are three types of grasslands in the midwest: tall-grass, mixed-grass, and short-grass prairies. The J. Clark Salyer grasslands are known as mixed-grass prairies. This means that there are representatives from the tall-grass prairies and short-grass prairies. Here at J. Clark Salyer NWR, green needlegrass and western wheatgrass are the dominant grass species.
Thousands of years ago, the surface of North Dakota first began to take shape. Glacial ice sheets covered the land and as a result, created three significant regions. These are the Drift Prairie, where you are now, the Red River Valley and the Missouri Coteau. The Drift Prairie and the Missouri Coteau contain numerous wetlands of prime importance to wildlife.
As the glaciers melted, water backed up to form many ancient lakes. About 12,000 years ago, glacial Lake Souris covered much of Bottineau and McHenry Counties. J. Clark Salyer NWR is located in the Lake Souris Plain. The soil which developed on this lake bed ranks as the most productive and fertile soil in the Drift Prairie Region.
Managing Grasslands With Prescribed Burning
As you make your way along the trail, you'll notice how the refuge has used prescribed burns as a management tool to improve native grasslands. Historically, periodic fires, ignited by lightning or set by Indians, have been an important part of the prairie. Early accounts indicate prairie fires were a common occurrence limited only by rainfall and natural firebreaks such as rivers and lakes. Many prairie plants have adapted to this, and their growth in stimulated after a fire.
As a forest or grassland ages, the variety of food and habitat is reduced. Fire is used as a recycler, making nutrients readily available for plant growth. Grasses have extensive root systems which remain alive after a burn. Nitrogen tied up in decaying vegetation is released into the soil by burning and made more available for new plant growth. The blackened ground also allows the soil to warm more quickly, creating vigorous growth. New growth produces a variety of food and habitats, renewing and invigorating an aging forest or grassland.
Prescribed Fire, Credit: USFWS
Prescribed burns are now used as a management tool to improve native grasslands. Timely burns suppress many of the less desirable plants such as wormwood, leafy spurge, and quaking aspen and allow the native grass species to flourish. Portions of the grassland trail area are burned on a 3-5 year cycle. Differences in cover conditions and plant vigor resulting from fire management are often apparent as one travels along the trail.
Many breeding birds of the grasslands are secretive in nature; ground nests are common. Spring is the best time to see them because courtship displays are often done in mid-air due to the lack of perching sites. Sprague's pipit is a good example. Other birds present here include Baird's, Le Conte's, grasshopper, sharp-tailed, and clay-colored sparrows; chestnut collared longspur; and western meadowlark. Look for Le Conte's and sharp-tailed sparrows in areas near the marsh. Birds of prey, such as the northerrn harrier or marsh hawk, find perfect hunting in this open country.
Male Baird's Sparrow, Credit: USFWS
Water levels are manipulated to maintain a good mix of open water and vegetated areas to provide habitat for nesting, molting, and migrating waterfowl. The marsh is also home for other waterbirds, furbearers, and many small aquatic animals. Small aquatic insects and other invertebrates associated with marsh vegetation are a major source of protein for newly-hatched ducklings.
Adult waterfowl feed primarily on aquatic plants during the summer and waste grain on surrounding agricultural land during fall migration. Redhead duck, canvasback duck, and other diving birds such as eared and pied-billed grebes construct overwater nests. Dabbling ducks such as the mallard, blue-winged teal, and northern pintail nest in the grasslands, but use the marsh to rear their broods.
Man, too, benefits from marshes . Wetlands serve as reservoirs, storing potential floodwaters and providing recharge of groundwater. They also serve as natural filters to improve water quality. Unfortunately, the wetlands that once dotted the prairies have been and continue to be drained as a result of intensive agriculture.
Ironically, drainage not only destroys the wetlands actually drained, but can also shorten the life of wetlands located miles away. For example, wetland drainage in the refuge's watershed has hastened runoff, accelerated erosion of soils, and caused additional silt to be deposited in refuge river marshes. The problem is sever enough to threaten the continued existence of marshes.
A wide variety of native wildflowers can be found along the trail. Most are perennial forbs with deep taproots and thick leaves which are an adaptation to dry conditions common on the prairie. Many of these plants are decreasers, meaning that when a piece of land is overgrazed, numbers of these plants will decrease.
Look for purple coneflower or black samson in the early spring; its long lavender petals extend from a brown-colored seed head. Other plants found here include the pasqueflower in the very early spring, prairie coneflower, purple prairie clover, leadplant, and silvery lupine. All combine to dot the prairie with splashes of living color.
Wildflowers, Credit: Gary Eslinger/USFWS
Massive herds of buffalo once roamed the grasslands of North Dakota. The coming of the railroad in the 1870's spelled doom for the buffalo. Between 1870 and 1873, commercial hunters succeeded in eliminating all of the large herds. After 1880, disease carried by domestic cattle may have further reduced their numbers. By the time North Dakota became a state in 1889, only an estimated 500 buffalo remained.
Small depressions in the terrain were used by buffalo as "wallows." Here, buffalo would lie down and roll back and forth to dust themselves. The clouds of dust would provide relief from pesky ticks and fleas. Convenient large rocks in or near these wallows provided excellent scratching posts. Such a situation exists approximately 140 yards north of Point 6 along the trail. The smoother areas on the large stone are believed to be the result of buffalo scratching against it. You may walk into this area if you wish.
The Assiniboine Tribe inhabited all of the northern part of North Dakota west of the Turtle Mountains during the 1700's. By the 1800's, they were pushed further west by the more powerful Chippewa and Sioux Tribes.
Until the horse was introduced by the Spaniards, Indians were primarily small-game hunters and farmers in the river valleys. Horses gave them mobility, and by the 1750's, bufflao hunting from horseback became a way of life. The nomadic Indians were now virtually dependent on the animals for food, shelter, and clothing.
Fire was used as a tool in the hunting of buffalo. Sometimes, the Tribes would set fire to the prairie to drive buffalo to killing points or to promote fresh growth of grass to attract the animals.
Indians historically camped on this and other ridges overlooking the Souris River. They gathered here to collect large numbers of flightless waterfowl which congregated in the river marshes during the annual loss or molt of flight feathers.