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Protecting the Prairie
As aircraft zip overhead on their way to or from the Grand Forks airport, the residents of Oakville Prairie go about their business as they have for thousands of years.
Dozens of plants and insect species, about 40 species of birds, and 20 species of mammals inhabit this little corner of Grand Forks County that has never been furrowed by agriculture or dug up for development. This tract of unbroken grassland owned by the University of North Dakota is today just as it was when glacial Lake Agassiz retreated about 7,500 years ago.
The 900-acre piece of virgin prairie — dubbed “Oakville Prairie” because it’s located in Oakville Township — now is part of the UND family of field research sites. As noted on the Prairie Partnership web page, the site is located on the relatively flat landscape of the Red River Valley. The prairie landscape developed on thick and productive black soil representing nearly 10,000 years of decomposed vegetation. These soils support a colorful variety of prairie plants.
Big bluestem dominates the upland prairie that also includes green needlegrass, prairie cordgrass, sideoats grama and seasonally important forbs such as prairie lilies, black-eyed Susans, white and purple prairie clovers, prairie coneflowers, goldenrods, and blue asters.
“There are about 20 species of mammals here, such as fox, raccoons, deer, voles, and mice,” said Kathryn Yurkonis, a prairie restoration expert and rangeland ecologist who supervises and conducts research in the Oakville Prairie site.
“We’ve also seen some badger mounds,” said Yurkonis, a faculty member in the Department of Biology, which owns the Oakville site. “What’s really very positive is that there are more than 40 species of breeding birds, including raptors such as hawks, grouse, Sprague’s pipit, and several sparrow species. We also have amphibians and reptiles and dozens of insect species, including 23 species of ants.
“This land was originally set aside by the North Dakota Legislature and was designated for schools to use for haying, which is why it was called School Trust land,” Yurkonis said. “The state deeded this property to the University in 1958, and it’s never been plowed, the soil has never been broken. It’s a real treasure. Places like this can help support those birds. They need large open expanses where they can get the insects they feed on.
“There are two quarter sections (one section contains 640 acres), and we have 1,000 acres total,” Yurkonis said. “UND owns all of this land. It’s separate from Kelly’s Slough (National Wildlife Refuge), though it’s part of the same ecosystem.
“With all these species, this is a high-diversity location, and it includes grassland birds that are rare in other parts of the state,” Yurkonis said.
Former Biology Department chair Rich Crawford (now retired) and his family bought another quarter section in the same vicinity and donated it to the state for conservation and research purposes. So the whole complex around Oakville Prairie stands as a unique research and study area.
A national resource
The Oakville Prairie site is managed by the UND Biology Department and supervised by the Field Station Committee, which includes, among others, Phyllis Johnson, vice president for research and economic development.
“We also have some land out by the Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Yurkonis said. “We have lots of ongoing research projects on these sites, and every summer there are folks doing various things, for example, a lot of bird surveys. People come from all over the country to do those and other projects such as prairie restoration ecology.”
Yurkonis and her Biology Department colleagues — Brett Goodwin, Robert Newman and Becky Simmons — recently were named National Academies Education Fellows in the Life Sciences. This honor followed their participation in the 2011 National Academies Northstar Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology that was held at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
One of the big challenges for scientists such as Yurkonis who work with grasslands is what to do about invasive species.
“It’s a big problem,” Yurkonis said. “We’re dealing with leafy spurge, brome grass, reed canary grass, and, to a lesser extent, lambs quarters, Kentucky blue grass, red rooted pigweed, and purple loosestrife. These are all invaders that are not part of the original landscape, largely because we’re close to agricultural land that is disturbed every year. Leafy spurge is really problematic, and we’re looking at bio-control, spraying, but no goats so far (goats love to munch on spurge). I’d love to burn this, but that would have to be done by the state.”
Though it’s in the same region as the so-called alkali flats, Oakville Prairie is not one of those salty flats.
“The alkali flats are a different ecosystem, and it’s found throughout this part of North Dakota,” Yurkonis said. “Red plants are indicators of such saline soils. It is not great for farmland, but it does provide good bird habitat.”
The right conditions
Oakville Prairie is, scientifically defined, a “grassland biome,” an area that has the right temperature and soil conditions to support a grassland ecosystem.
“Similar areas exist all around the globe at similar latitudes both north and south of the equator,” Yurkonis said. “There are grasslands in China and Russia where they’re called steppes; in Africa where they’re called savannas; and in southern Africa where they’re called veldts or velds.”
“There are more grasslands, such as this one here in the Oakville Prairie, in the northern hemisphere because there’s more land in the northern hemisphere,” said Yurkonis, whose research interests include plant community and restoration ecology; spatial ecology; plant-fungal interactions and species invasions; and grassland restoration, reconstruction, and management.
“I do a lot of research in how to build grasslands and that includes the research I do at Oakville Prairie,” Yurkonis said. “I also work with the range grasses, things that are planted for cattle and other grazing animals.”
Juan Pedraza | Staff Writer
Kathryn Yurkonis, supervisor of the Oakville Prairie resource, was recently named a National Academics Education Fellow in the Life Sciences.