Moose research in the northeast corner of Minnesota is providing an unexpected, and totally high tech boost to research on the Chippewa Prairie along Lac qui Parle Lake.
Four GPS-equipped and satellite-linked collars used to track moose calves are now helping researchers follow cattle.
The collars had been attached to moose calves shortly after their births in spring. The collars made it possible for researchers to quickly reach the calves when they died and determine the cause of mortality.
The role of the satellite-linked collars on the prairie is not quite so dramatic, but no less important. They make it possible to precisely monitor the movement of cattle as they graze a 2,000-acre prairie area.
Each spring, an area of this open prairie is deliberately burned.
Known as a patch-burn regimen, it mimics the natural prairie when bison and elk moved in after prairie fires to graze on the newly-emerged vegetation.
The collars will help offer “answers to the questions,’’ said Joe Blastick, with The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy and DNR own the 2,000 acres of native prairie and former pasture, and are partners in this research.
Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had learned that the collars from the unfortunate moose calves were collected and held for use next year. He asked to borrow a few of the collars for the summer season.
Every hour, the collars send a signal to satellites giving the precise location of the animals. From the comfort of an office, Trauba and Blastick can click a mouse and see exactly where the cattle are grazing, as well as look at where they have been in any of the previous days.
Along with location, the collars also record when a cow has her head up or down, indicative of whether she is grazing or moving.
This is the third year the patch-burn grazing research has been taking place on the prairie. In the past, Trauba and Blastick tried their best to keep track of the cattle’s grazing patterns, but could never spend all the time needed.
The collars will now provide researchers with comprehensive information on just how much time the cattle actually spend on the burn patch grazing. The information will help assure that the cattle are managed to best benefit the prairie.
The goal is to see that the natural disturbance provided by the cattle increases the diversity of native prairie plants, while also helping keep non-native plants in check. The grazing should also keep the flowers and grasses at a shorter height, which benefits grassland birds and other wildlife.
The anecdotal evidence to date is encouraging. “I just think the grazing-fire interaction begets diversity,’’ said Trauba as he pointed to the lush mix of forbs and grasses at the site.
The DNR-owned lands here are part of the wildlife management area and are open to hunting. The cattle will be removed in early September, before the start of the deer archery season.
Trauba, an avid hunter, knows that many hunters are watching the DNR’s use of grazing to manage grasslands with a cautious eye. The goal here is to make this a win-win situation.
The fire-grazing regimen should provide improved habitat for wildlife of all types, including pheasants and other game species. While the relatively small portion of this prairie that was burned last spring may have ankle-high grass, upland bird hunters will still find knee- and waist-high growth throughout the majority of the remainder of the area. They should find plenty of birds to flush.