- Associated Press - Sunday, September 6, 2015

MAHTO, S.D. (AP) - Grass-fed beef steaks sizzled on the grill and plump prairie dogs jumped in and out of their holes in a strange welcome to a ranch on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The delicious meat and the yipping prairie dogs are of equal but opposite interest down here, where a $5 million, multi-year research project is underway, the Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1LSgRip ) reported.

On a recent Thursday, it was field day on the Mahto Research Ranch, so-named for its proximity to the Mahto village, a small collection of buildings at the end of a beat-up stretch of asphalt.

A small group heard research presentations, ate grass-fed steak sandwiches for lunch and ended the day by sampling three quality grades of New York strip steak - good, better, best - all raised there at the ranch.

The 5,000-acre spread is beautiful country, fed by the live water in Oak Creek, and it is possible that the work being done there will result in handcrafted, trademarked beef raised on the reservation and processed there, too.

“That dream, that vision is possible,” says Jim Garrett, professor of range science at Sitting Bull College. “What we’re working on is the creation of a new type of food production.”


The field day was sponsored by all the partners in this research project, and there are many. Sitting Bull College joined with North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University agriculture experiment stations and extension services and the USDA Agriculture Research Service to research the possibility of transforming the worn ranch pastures into lush-enough grazing to raise market-ready beef from birth through slaughter.

“We want to eliminate the grain cycle. It’s not as healthy for the human body,” Garrett said.

The ranch is on lease from the McLaughlin family, present-day owners in a lineage that goes back to the early 1900s to the Anna and Joe Good Elk allotment.

T.J. McLaughlin said use of the ranch for research fits his mother’s vision that somehow it could be used to preserve some of the last remaining traditional plants, trees and wildlife.

His son’s studies in the Sitting Bull College environmental science program led to students using the land for thesis projects on beaver, prairie dogs and plant varieties.

“We started batting it around (long-term research) being there were people here doing research and my mother’s wishes to preserve it,” said McLaughlin, confirming the family will continue to participate if the project continues under another grant application in the works.

His daughter, Prairie McLaughlin, said she remembers the land being “almost a desert all through here. The grass is deep again and beautiful. We can see, hear and feel the difference in just five years.”

Rain has been generous and helpful, and so has the project’s careful use of pastures, especially those where prairie dogs are concentrated in large numbers. The operation runs about 200 head divided among four pastures, but the idea is to spread the practice to other reservation ranches.

The dogs - actually they’re in the squirrel family - evoke passionate emotions among ranchers.

“There are a lot of ranchers who absolutely hate them,” and, at the same time, many deny the relationship between prairie dogs and their own overgrazing practices, Garrett says.


The goal of the research is to see how well cattle grazing and prairie dogs can co-exist.

The dogs are considered a keystone species in that another 140 species directly or indirectly benefit from their presence, Garrett said. The towns are a McDonalds drive-through for raptors and coyotes, and the burrows are opportunistic dwellings for burrowing owls and rattlesnakes.

“What we want to know is if the grazer is one of those or not. What our preliminary research shows is that depending on the timing of grazing, when the grass (around prairie dog towns) is shorter and tenderer, it’s more nutritious,” he said.

These questions have created opportunities for related research.

Janna Kincheloe, an SDSU researcher, works with six beef animals on the ranch that have a cannulas embedded into their stomachs. The apparatus is a permanent opening that allows her to literally reach into the cow’s stomach to extract the food content then test it for protein.

“Want to try it?” she asks with a grin.

The research is important to understand whether weeds, too, are beneficial forage, and Kincheloe said some have a surprisingly high protein content of 12 to 14 percent by volume.

Up the hill from the cannulas-cow corral, Ben Geaumont, research scientist at the Hettinger station, is researching the prairie dog population. He’s looking at density related to landscapes and said that, in nearly five years of counting them, the numbers have remained very stable.

He traps them and attaches tiny ear tags to keep track, learning also that these guys are pretty plump at nearly 2.5 pounds.

“They maybe have expanded their territory a little, but I don’t think they’re pushing the edges much,” he said.

The historical range of the prairie dog - primarily because of crop production throughout the Great Plains - has been reduced by almost 98 percent, a decimation helped along by purposeful poisonings and shootings.

“Ranchers are giving up something to have them on their land. They can co-exist, but it depends on the landowner’s goals,” Geaumont said.

Aaron Field, a grad student from NDSU, has pictures of a family of the increasingly rare burrowing owl taken on the ranch, a topic he’s researching. Mom, dad and six owlets are lined up near the prairie dog hole they used for nesting.

“The effects that they (prairie dogs) have are much greater than their size,” Field said.


Chris Schauer, director of the Hettinger Research Center, is one of the leads on the research project.

“This is a huge deal. The bottom line big picture is that Standing Rock is not just a reservation, it’s also a food desert. Can we get to the point of creating an economic development engine with a small packing plant of locally produced beef that’s raised on the land and never leaves the land? Like farmers’ markets - think of that on the beef side,” Schauer said.

He said the research project has been full bore with five grad students and 10 researchers out on the land, starting as early as 4 a.m., on any given day April through October.

“The cattle is really the easy part. With the prairie dog, we’re learning, what are the economic realities so that we don’t negatively affect the animal with agriculture and it becomes an endangered species,” he said.

At the crux of it all at a remote ranch in the sere grasses of the reservation is this: “Can we create an economic engine as well as an environmentally sustainable practice?” he said.

At the sampling table, there’s no question that the Certified Angus Beef grade is more tender, but not necessarily tastier, than the select grade. And there’s also no question that the prairie dogs, nervously diving into their holes when vehicles come and go, will be happier when the ranch is quiet again.

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