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Mule Deer Foundation partners with Shade Ranch on conservation effort

Marshall Johnson of the Mule Deer Foundation is working with Medora area rancher Kim Shade and volunteers from the oil industry to remove invasive juniper trees that are making the Badlands uninhabitable for mule deer.

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Kim Shade stands on his excavator at his ranch.
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The Mule Deer Foundation has partnered with rancher Kim Shade to mitigate the spread of invasive evergreen trees that are ruining habitat for mule deer and other species across the Badlands.

Located approximately 20 miles south of Medora, Shade’s ranch of several thousand acres is headquartered in the Tracy Mountain area.

Marshall Johnson is senior regional director of the Mule Deer Foundation for North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

“Juniper and cedar are kind of an invasive species here in North Dakota. They have been allowed to grow in deep draws, north facing slopes and stuff like that because they create windbreaks,” Johnson said.

Besides providing windbreaks and cover for small game and rodents, juniper trees are counterproductive and serve no purpose, Johnson said. Nothing grows underneath them and they divert moisture that’s necessary for healthy grass, he added.

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Wildlife biologists with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department use tracking collars to observe the movement patterns of big game animals. Johnson said they’ve found that while mule deer will bed down around the edges of juniper clusters, they avoid areas too thick and difficult to pass through.

“One by itself is not a problem. It’s when you start getting a whole bunch of them, they kill everything,” he said. “They suck up so much water and then in a drought year it’s even worse. So what we want to do, as well as the state and the landowners, we want to ensure we have natural grasslands.”

Conservationists and ranchers have a shared interest in juniper reduction because that translates to better grazing pastures for wildlife and cattle, Johnson said.

During a visit with The Press, Shade demonstrated how he spent a couple of days clearing out junipers using his Komatsu excavator in a canyon on his ranch where there were hundreds of deer tracks. Shade noted that the deer never passed through there before that.

Shade said he generally avoids driving on the grasslands of his ranch if he can.

“I feel bad, I don’t even drive my truck on my grass back here,” he said, looking at his excavator tracks. “But I hate these cedar trees so much I’ve got to do something.”

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Kim Shade uses his excavator to remove a juniper tree. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

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Kim Shade stands on his excavator at his ranch.

Shade said the junipers were originally introduced to North Dakota in the 1930s during the Great Depression to create wind breaks that would mitigate erosion on the plains.

Johnson expressed gratitude to the oil industry for stepping up to help in the conservation efforts. Tessa Sandstrom, director of Community Relations at the North Dakota Petroleum Council, helped organize a group of 22 volunteers from MAP Mechanical General Contractors, Petro-Hunt LLC, Marathon Oil, Rossco Crane and Whiting Petroleum Corp. Bobcat, which is headquartered in West Fargo, sent two semi-loads of skidsteers and other construction equipment.

Sandstrom said the North Dakota Petroleum Council has been backing conservation efforts for several years.

“We helped the Mule Deer Foundation with this project at the Shade Ranch, a Missouri River cleanup near Williston, a project at the Richards Ranch in Beach,” Sandstrom said. “Many of our employees, Ron and I, we all are outdoorsmen and women who enjoy hunting and hiking. So when there’s opportunities to work with these groups we’re happy to help. Conservation and the environment, those are pretty important to us.”

The group spent two days working together, volunteering their time and equipment to cut down the invasive trees. Kurt Swenson, a mule deer hunter and co-owner of MAP Mechanical General Contractors, was among the volunteers.

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“It was hard to keep track of how many trees we cut. It was in the thousands,” Swenson said. “They were gathered into burn piles. Once there’s adequate moisture this winter with snow.”

Swenson said he’s passionate about conservation.

“Our company and members of our company are supporters of the Mule Deer Foundation. We’ve supported the Foundation on several work day projects in North Dakota to help improve wildlife habitat,” he said.

Under the guidance of state officials at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, they have to wait until winter to do a control burn to mitigate the chance of wildfires like the ones that many rural fire departments in southwest North Dakota fought over the summer, Johnson said. Yet they’ve tried to do controlled burns on Shade’s ranch on multiple occasions over the past couple of winters, but it’s been too difficult to start the fires. He said it’s also been a struggle getting a company to come out and do the burn.

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Kim Shade moves a juniper branch to a burn pile. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

The Mule Deer Foundation isn’t aiming for total eradication of junipers, Johnson said.

“We want to leave mosaics for shelter because the deer will lay up against them. But on the grasslands we’d like to get rid of about 75 to 90% of them,” Johnson said.

Shade agreed.

“Yeah we don’t want to kill all of them, which we couldn’t if we wanted to,” Shade said.

According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, drought pressures this year have resulted in fewer mule deer fawn. In addition to invasive trees and dry conditions burdening mule deer populations, Johnson said epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) has plagued North Dakota whitetails. He believes climate change is exacerbating EHD because the deer are spending more time crowded around the same water sources. The disease is spread by a bug called a midge that bites deer.

“When you had a hard frost in early September, that pretty much nipped it in the bud. Now we’re not seeing a hard frost until the middle of October. You get that additional four-plus weeks and it’s a really bad situation,” Johnson said.

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The Shade Ranch, pictured above, is about 20 miles south of Medora. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

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The Shade Ranch, pictured above, is about 20 miles south of Medora. (Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press)

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