North America’s grassland biome is the continent’s most endangered major ecosystem. The decline in extent and quality of North American prairies coincides with decreasing populations of many animal species that depend on them and is among the most challenging conservation issues of this century. In states and provinces of the northern prairie region, for example, native prairie has declined 30% to 99% due mainly to conversion for agriculture. Roughly 222,000 acres of native mixed-grass and tallgrass prairie are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota and South Dakota. These areas range from small isolated 40 acre grasslands surrounded by cropland to large contiguous areas like J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge.
Prairies in the northern Great Plains evolved with interacting grazing (by bison, elk, antelope, small mammals, and insects) and fire disturbances (started by lightning and Native Americans). These events along with drought shaped grassland plant and animal communities. Woodland and forest for example were relatively uncommon before homesteading of North Dakotas vast grasslands. Before this European settlement of North Dakota, fires were common during all months of the year, reoccurring roughly every 5–10 years in our area – this kept grassland mostly free from trees. These natural disturbances ended by the early 1900s, however, when bison were extirpated and most prairie fire were suppressed.
Today, prescribed fire and prescribed grazing (by cattle) are used by refuge managers to mimic or recreate natural events by bison and Native Americans that occurred before 1900. Annually, about 25,000-50,000 acres of grassland are periodically burned on national wildlife refuges in the Dakotas and eastern Montana. Fire is used primarily to maintain or improve habitat for wildlife, restore native vegetation, and reduce accumulated fuels (dead vegetation) associated with catastrophic wildfire.
To learn more about prescribed fire in the USFWS, please visit the Fire Management page.
To learn about the current national wildfire situation, please visit the North Dakota Interagency Dispatch Center site.
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25 species of ducks use the Refuge habitat, including 4 species that are rare visitors and 16 species that breed here.