By Doug Leier
The North Dakota state bird is the Western meadowlark, a familiar, yet declining, songbird who’s melody booms across the prairie with its rich, flute-like call and equally glowing yellow feathers.
Founders of the Meadowlark Initiative, a new statewide strategy that will team landowners, conservation groups, scientists and others to enhance, restore and sustain native grasslands in North Dakota, could have easily gone another route considering the number of declining grassland-dependent animals they had to choose from.
The list is long, 48 species long, according to the Game and Fish Department’s Species of Conservation Priority. This number, which includes everything from songbirds, small mammals, to pollinating insects, isn’t surprising when you consider North Dakota has lost more than 70% of its native prairie over time.
“As the name suggests, the Meadowlark Initiative is a landscape level initiative with obvious benefits for our state bird, our well-known prairie crooner,” said Greg Link, Game and Fish Department conservation and communications division chief. “That being said, it’s about all grassland critters. It’s about our prairie habitats.”
It’s about more than that, when you consider what’s at stake in the long-haul task of enhancing, restoring and retaining what’s left of North Dakota’s native grasslands. It’s about people, communities, lifestyles, future generations, heritage and quality of life. It’s about water, soil, energy and food. It’s about partnerships. It’s about collaboration.
“It really encompasses all that. And that’s why it’s important,” Link said. “And that’s why it’s going to take a village to get it done. It’s not just the Game and Fish, but we have a key role in it.”
A year ago, the Game and Fish Department and 13 contributing partners submitted a USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant proposal, seeking to leverage over $12 million in partner contributions with $10 million of USDA-NRCS funding to kick-start collaborative work toward goals and objectives, encompassed in the Meadowlark Initiative. In spring, it was selected as one of 85 successful projects nationwide.
Together, the collective effort focuses on improving, increasing and connecting wildlife habitat, and supporting the sustainability of new and existing livestock ranches by offering incentives and programs to promote regenerative grazing with grass-based livestock operations.
“When we start talking about native prairie, we have to ask ourselves who are the owners and managers of our native prairie in North Dakota? Why do they use it? How do they use it? We need those folks,” Link said. “And, so, right away, in most cases, we’re talking about ranchers and producers who run livestock on that prairie. They’re important to keeping that prairie healthy.”
Link said through the Meadowlark Initiative, producers can plant marginal cropland back to diverse native perennial grasslands for grazing. Cost-share to establish the grass and to install grazing infrastructure, such as fencing and water, is available. During the first three years of grass establishment, producers also are eligible to receive rental payments as the land transitions from cropland to grazing land.
As citizens, no matter where you live in North Dakota, your interests, your goals, your walk of life, our native prairie, or what remains of it, should be of concern.
While recovering North Dakota’s native prairies will help sustain existing working grasslands and ranches for future generations, the Meadowlark Initiative will aid our state’s most rare and declining species.
Wildlife managers understand that listing a species as federally threatened or endangered may restrict or intensify certain actions on private and public lands. The cost of protection or restoration of a listed species is often far greater than preventing or stemming the decline in the first place.
“It’s like when somebody goes into the emergency room. It’s expensive. It’s hard work. And it’s not always successful,” Link said. “Once these species are listed, it gets harder on the landscape because it starts affecting how people do what they do, and oftentimes it can get contentious. And we’d rather do it the proactive way than the reactive way and take care of a species before they get listed.”
Leier is an Outreach Biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.
Featured Photo: Prairie Post. Partnering with ranching and farming operations to preserve, protect and enhance prairie habitat is a focus of the Meadowlark Initiative. NDG&F Photo.