One of the least appreciated and perhaps underutilized destinations in our area is the Sheyenne National Grasslands. I consider it a large public playground with limitless possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast. It's truly a gem, administered by Dakota Prairie Grasslands, falling under the umbrella of the US Forest Service. I recently interviewed (via email) the District Ranger in charge, Bryan Stotts. He's a 25-year veteran of the
Forest Service and has spent the last 13 years in Lisbon with his wife and two sons.
Q: What makes the Sheyenne National Grasslands a destination for the average North Dakotan?
Stotts: It's a living museum. It's a chance to at least glimpse the North Dakota settlers first saw when they arrived. We still have most of the original plants and animals (missing large ungulates and carnivores plus passenger pigeon).
Q: Are there any historical sites on the SNG?
Stotts: Yes, it includes 70+ homesteads, many marked by the local historical society.
Q: Can you describe the various recreational opportunities there?
Stotts: Most things - hiking, hunting, horseback riding, exploring, kite flying, observing nature, camping, etc. But driving off designated roads with a motor vehicle is not allowed and neither are fireworks.
Q: What about camping opportunities?
Stotts: Throw-down camping is allowed everywhere on the SNG except in parking lots. Vehicles must stay on designated roads except certain areas where they are allowed to go off the road up to 300 feet to camp. (Map is available online or from our district office). We also have a nice campground in our Hankinson Unit ($6/night)
Q: For the wildlife watcher, what might we keep our eyes open for?
Stotts: Common species include deer, coyotes, grouse, waterfowl, prairie bird species, and many species of wildflowers. Rarely a person may encounter otters in the river, a wandering moose, worm-eating warblers and many other vagrant birds, unusual butterflies, showy lady's slippers and other orchids.
Q: What special species (plant or animal) does the SNG harbor?
Stotts: High interest species include prairie chicken, dakota skipper butterfly, and western prairie fringed orchid, which is listed federally as a threatened species.
Q: What makes the SNG unique in your opinion?
Stotts: It really is a place of east meets west. We have a wonderful mixture of plant and animal species from both the eastern and western parts of the country in a relatively small area. This creates tremendous diversity.
Q: Describe for me the importance of the SNG with a biome-wide view.
Stotts: The SNG is the largest remaining piece of publically-owned tallgrass prairie. Tallgrass is one of the rarest ecosystems in North America. At one time North Dakota had about 10 million acres of tallgrass. It now has roughly 140,000 acres, half in the SNG. It also has good representation of oak savannah and eastern hardwood forest, both rare in the state.
Q: What are some hot issues facing the staff at the SNG?
Stotts: Invasive/exotic species are our number one concerns. Illegal off-road travel is another big problem along with vandalism. As we build more recreational facilities (campgrounds and trails) we will likely deal with more "people" issues.
Q: What are some of the changes you've witnessed in your tenure at the Lisbon District?
Stotts: Since I arrived, every year has been above average in precipitation. I have seen a lot more water, invasion of brush/trees, and the spread of some exotic grasses. I've also noticed a slow but steady increase in the recreational use of the SNG as well as more general interest by the public.
Q: What sort of future do you see for the SNG?
Stotts: Our future is restoration. There are many aspects to it and the timeline is long, but this is the direction we are committed to. Increased recreation of many types is also in the works. Overall, as the SNG is "discovered" I anticipate increased use.
Q: Where can one get more information about the SNG?
Stotts: Sheyenne Ranger District, Box 946, Lisbon, ND 58054; 701-683-4342; www.fs.fed.us/r1/dakotaprairie.