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The taming of the prairie

by Al Gustin

When the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan celebrated its centennial in 2012, a publication commemorating the milestone was produced, titled “The Taming of the Prairie: A Century of Agricultural Research.” Today, soil and range scientists at the lab, and others, might take issue with that title. Some people today believe the prairie should never have been tamed.

Some now hold the belief that the native prairie was the ideal ecosystem for this region. It had, after all, evolved over thousands of years. Taming it meant degrading it. That’s the argument. Decades of conservation have not done enough, some believe. Today, they say, the objective should go beyond conservation and even preservation, to restoration.

For the pioneers, however, the prairie was a wild place – a sea of grass populated by wild animals of all sorts. It was plagued by devastating, uncontrollable wildfires and unstoppable, fierce winter winds. For the pioneers, the prairie wasn’t something to be preserved, but tamed, or “subdued,” as Eric Bergeson suggests in his book, “Successful Gardening on the Northern Prairie.” Homesteaders subdued the prairie so they could raise wheat, flax and feed for their livestock. They were farmers. The Homestead Act encouraged it.

And so, at the urging of local civic leaders, the government established the research lab in Mandan. The centennial publication says, “The initial research priority was to develop farming practices that would identify plants that would help farmers and ranchers deal with the harsh conditions of wind, drought and extreme temperatures common to the region. Research to determine if farming would be successful included developing cultural practices for growing crops for livestock, vegetables for human consumption and planting trees to protect homesteads and livestock.”

The goal was to tame the prairie to the extent that it could provide a sustainable livelihood for homesteaders. Today, taming the prairie might seem wrong-headed. But not a century ago. That was a different time. And as my father used to say, “Time and circumstances alter everything.”

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.