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Restoring Prairie After the Plow

As the prairie prepares for winter slumber, Ellen Anderson is ramping up her efforts in time for spring. There's a farmer to hire, a seed mix to order, and lots of paperwork to complete while snow starts to fall outside her home on the Reserve. 

Ellen oversees the Reserve's largest and most complex habitat restoration project to date, the sort of endeavor that inspires the perfect combination of worry and excitement. Returning hundreds of acres of plowed land back to native prairie isn’t easy, fast, or cheap, but Ellen is optimistic and ready for the challenge.

"There's something about my upbringing on the family farm and my education in range science that just comes together beautifully to restore grasslands." With a giggle, she adds, "And I can always call my Dad about planting grass."

To put Ellen's work in perspective, the Reserve's chosen location on Montana's northern plains is largely due to the fact that much of the land was never plowed. But for the areas that were disturbed and are now owned by APR, there's much work to be done over the next few years. Out of the 305,000 acres that the Reserve currently manages, Ellen's 655-acre project area makes up most of what we need to tackle until more lands are added.

There are countless benefits to restoring these areas, especially when land managers can look long-term and focus on the natural processes that need to be in place for the ecosystem to function on its own one day. From APR's perspective, restored farmland is more than the sum of its fragmented acres -- providing food and shelter for growing wildlife populations and strengthening the resilience of the prairie by helping native plants outcompete their non-native and weedy counterparts. Learn more from Ellen in the interview below.


Q: What's the goal for farmland restoration on the Reserve and how does it fit in the overall management strategy?

Ellen: Our land management goals are tied to a scale designed to measure grassland biodiversity, called the Freese Scale. One of the things that the scale takes into account is the status of soil and a native vegetation structure, so where we can improve soils and plants we can also rank our lands higher on the scale. Measuring progress on a landscape of this size is tricky, and the Freese Scale helps us focus on the types of work that make a big difference.

My project's big goal is to restore the farmland that APR owns to native prairie so that it can function in the ecosystem again. The process will reintroduce a wide range of vegetation to the sites, change the soil over from furrows, and create important food sources for wildlife and pollinators. Along the way, we have mini goals that we need to reach, from getting crops established and smoothing out the soils to finally establishing the diverse mixes of grasses, shrubs and wildflowers that make a mixed-grass prairie work.


Q: There's a lot of expertise that's needed. Who have you pulled in to help?

Ellen: In addition to bringing on a local farmer that's already been working on returning fields to grassland, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office has been enormously helpful in developing the recipe for our custom seed mix. By taking into account our soil types and the types of vegetation that will do well in each area, the NRCS provides valuable information about how we can plant seeds to best meet our goals. We were able to put together a mix of shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that will be good snacks for animals like pronghorn and deer while adding in some special extras for native bees. The seed company has also been a great asset, helping to gather up the seeds and making recommendations based on regional supplies. It's harder than you think!


Q: As a multi-year project, what can people expect to see on the project sites?

Ellen: It's not going to be pretty. Visitors will see dirt patches that look weedy, especially during the first year when we're focused on churning up the fields to break up the plant material already there. To some it will still look like commercial farmland. By the second year, the farmer will plant a crop that's suited to the area to help get the ground ready for native plants. Then comes the grass! Our special seed mix will be planted and the soil will be smoothed out so that it's more natural looking. From years 3-5, we should start to see the diversity of plants start to return.


Q: What will success look like?

Ellen: Once we're about 7-10 years into farmland restoration, visitors won't be able to easily differentiate between unplowed ground and the project sites. Elk and deer will happily browse across the landscape, birds will find new perches and nesting spots, insects will buzz about from flower to flower. To help us track the visual changes, I've set up GPS points where I'll take photos each fall and spring, probably indefinitely. I can't wait to see the reaction of people that see the before and after shots.

Thinking more about the big picture, especially as fences continue to come down and animals move about more freely, I’m really excited to see these areas become a functioning part of the ecosystem. It takes time; nature happens at a different pace. The Reserve has shown that it's investing in the future of this landscape, and now that investment reaches below ground, too.