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Restoring native prairie provides economic, cultural benefits

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DENVER – The restoration of native landscapes extends across North America, as tribal nations seek to save forests, wetlands, prairie grasslands and a host of other natural resources.

On the northern Great Plains, which cut a great swath east of the Rocky Mountains from North Dakota down into Colorado and Nebraska, the preservation and rejuvenation of native prairie can be necessary to the grazing economy.

“What we’re trying to do is bring back native grass, because it’s a matter of economic survival,” said Sheri Miner, director of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s prairie management program in Eagle Butte, S.D.

Prairie restoration does not come cheap if it involves sowing native grasses, and Miner said funding cutbacks have temporarily halted reseeding.

Prairie Restorations Inc. of Minnesota, one source for native land rejuvenation, estimates the average range of restoration cost at $600 to $2,500 per acre for 10 acres or more, depending on the amount of soil preparation involved. Its catalog lists seed alone for big bluestem grass, for example, at $12 per pound; and the company recommends seeding of from 10 to 16 pounds per acre, depending on the sowing method used.

Some tribes – whether they use reseeding or other methods – have decided the time and effort involved in prairie restoration are worth it in cultural as well as economic gains.

“From a tribal standpoint, it’s a cultural resource, and it’s important that we restore the flora and fauna on our lands,” said James Rattling Leaf, of the Sicangu Policy Institute at Sinte Gleska University, Rosebud reservation, S.D.

Concern also centers on eradicating invasive species, strengthening the native plants resistant to climate change, preserving prairie pothole areas with their unique micro-ecosystems and developing college-level programs that teach students about connection to the land not only in the past, but also in the present and future, he said in a telephone conversation.

Sinte Gleska University is partnering with NASA to use satellite imagery to observe Rosebud tribal lands to monitor land usage and conditions, not only for the tribe but also for individual landowners, he said.

Calvin Waln, executive director of the Rosebud Sioux’s Tribal Land Enterprise organization, said the tribe has acquired about 16,000 acres of original tribal land to return into trust status; and he will use “every type of management tool to restore native grasses,” including best management plans, selective burns and, further in the future, reseeding.

The CRST has a land base of more than 2.8 million acres, constituting one of the largest intact grasslands left in the U.S., according to the tribe’s official prairie management plan.

The CRST’s prairie management goals are to “improve the prairie ecosystem of the reservation boundaries and decrease overgrazing of range units” and to “restore and maintain the ecosystem back to its natural state,” the statement notes. “Our program is an example of integrating Native American values with scientific techniques to promote the restoration of our prairie lands.”

But Miner, the program director, said that federal funding cutbacks over the last three years, largely attributable to war spending, have ended a program of seeding with native grasses.