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A meadow of foxtail barley stretches across Oakville Prairie west of Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Grant benefits prairie conservation in Grand Forks County

Grassland conservation in Grand Forks County is getting a boost from a $121,220 Outdoor Heritage Fund grant awarded to Audubon Dakota through the state Industrial Commission. Coupled with matching funds and in-kind labor from Audubon and other partners, including the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the total grant package is $450,000.

The funds will be used to create a "Grand Forks Prairie Management Toolbox," said Marshall Johnson, executive director of Audubon Dakota. The toolbox will help private landowners establish practices to make their land more productive, while at the same time provide habitat for local wildlife.

Participating landowners can use the toolbox to develop grazing systems, remove invasive woody species such as Russian olive, conduct prescribed burns and plant native grasses to restore grasslands. Both financial and technical assistance will be available to qualifying landowners, Johnson said.

"The project and really the overall project, we're really excited about," Johnson said. "We really feel projects such as this that serve landowners first and foremost, serve wildlife and serve the general public are exactly what the Outdoor Heritage Fund was created to do."

The Outdoor Heritage Fund grant covers 200 acres of prairie restoration, 10,000 acres of woody vegetation removal and 3,000 acres of support for landowners interested in setting up grazing on their grassland property. A special emphasis will be placed on land re-enrolled into the Conservation Reserve Program and open to sportsmen and recreationalists through the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program, Johnson said.

"To have a nice chunk of resources coming to this generally underappreciated part of the country, part of the state, is really exciting," he said.

The funding complements a $375,000 federal Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant Grand Forks County received earlier this year by extending the reach to private landowners in Grand Forks County, Johnson said.

The RCPP grant is focused on UND's Oakville Prairie and some landowner practices, Johnson said. By comparison, the Prairie Management Toolbox is exclusive to landowners.

"It kind of completes the puzzle, if you will," he said.

Information for landowners interested in applying for toolbox funding will be available later this summer at local Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offices, along with other places landowners come into contact with conservation organizations, Johnson said.

Grand Forks County's prairie lands provide forage production, wildlife habitat and water management services for the region. State, federal, nonprofit and citizen partners signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a working group focusing on grassland retention, improved grazing practices and managing invasive species in the area.

The Outdoor Heritage Fund receives up to $40 million per biennium from oil and gas production tax revenues to fund North Dakota conservation projects. The Industrial Commission oversees the fund, and an Outdoor Heritage Fund Advisory Board makes funding recommendations to the commission based on the applications it receives.

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