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Courtesy Photo by Dave Lambeth The Oakville Prairie west of Grand Forks provides a variety of grassland habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Partnership aims to enhance GF prairie

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GRAND FORKS -- Conserving grasslands and wetlands on the saline prairie of Grand Forks County is the focus of a new partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District and several other agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

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According to Lorilie Atkinson, soil conservationist for the Grand Forks County NRCS, the partners in the Grand Forks County Prairie Project teamed up in an effort to better educate farmers and other landowners about the variety of programs available and the benefits prairie habitat provides.

The project covers portions of 12 townships, including Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge and Oakville Prairie. Other partners in the project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Grand Forks County Prairie Partners, the University of North Dakota, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, Pheasants Forever and Audubon Dakota.

Atkinson said less than 1 percent of Grand Forks County's native prairie remains. The saline prairie features a mix of wetlands, tallgrass and mixed grass prairie that provides habitat for a variety of birds and other wildlife.

"We really want to let people know what the habitat is," she said. "It's a unique area that Grand Forks County has."

Atkinson said project partners offer several options, ranging from cost-share and easement programs to technical assistance, for landowners interested in maintaining or enhancing grasslands and wetlands.

"It can be farmland, cropland or rangeland; it can be field borders or residue management," Atkinson said. "It can be putting in pasture or grasslands. It depends on their resource concerns.

"That's our focus -- improving their resources and hopefully their income potential, as well as benefiting the wildlife and neighboring prairie area."

Atkinson said the project partners hosted a meeting for landowners in March and about 30 people attended. Also in the works, she said, is a field day where people can visit various sites on the prairie and see examples of habitat projects.

A date for the field day hasn't been set, she said.

"We want to make connections with landowners out there, so if people are interested in working with us as a group, we'd like to reach out and work with them on our land," Atkinson said. "A lot of things come down to funding, and we're limited by that, but we have a lot of technical expertise, too."

Dave Lambeth of Grand Forks, a local birding expert and founding member of the Grand Forks County Prairie Partners, said the grasslands provide crucial habitat for birds such as the western meadowlark.

North Dakota's state bird is disappearing from many areas, including the Red River Valley.

"The more intensive ag area doesn't have the habitat meadowlarks need," Lambeth said.

As more land leaves the federal Conservation Reserve Program and is returned to production, the importance of preserving the habitat that remains and educating landowners about other incentives that might be available will become even more important, he said.

"I think we're all looking at grasslands these days to see what can be done to keep them in grass," Lambeth said. "Landowners need financial incentives to keep it in grass."

Correctly managing the land with practices such as grazing and prescribed burning also is part of the mix, he said.

"There's a real opportunity in the Red River Valley to still conserve some grassland that's really needed by migrants and nesting species," Lambeth said. "My take is there needs to be partnerships and cooperation all around to make that possible."

For more information on the Grand Forks County Prairie Project and conservation opportunities available either through the NRCS or other partners, contact Atkinson at (701) 772-2321, ext. 3, or email lorilie.atkinson@nd.usda.gov.

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