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Revitalizing South Dakota's Ecosystems: Laura Kahler's Role in the Grassland Initiative for Enhanced Conservation and Education

Laura Kahler is the director of the South Dakota Grassland Initiative (SDGI) and a graduate of South Dakota State University. After studying agricultural education in college, Kahler gained experience in 4-H youth programs, bringing agricultural education and context to clubs, schools, and grant-funded programs. Kahler’s upbringing, studies, and background have coalesced to provide her with a unique perspective on South Dakota agriculture and habitat, culminating in a distinct understanding of the importance of collaboration and education to move the needle of regional land perspective and practice.


Laura Kahler
Laura Kahler

Laura Kahler is originally from Wisconsin, the daughter of a game warden with a background in state wetland conservation. This upbringing offered her a unique perspective rooted in conservation and appreciation of natural habitats, resources, and species. With this innate appreciation for the natural elements of an ecosystem, she set out to broaden others’ perspectives on what land is, what it needs, and what it offers.


“You start asking yourself, how can we get other people to have the same mindset and larger appreciation?” Kahler explains. “To me, when I’m out hunting, it’s not just about shooting that pheasant down, it’s about being outside, appreciating the species I’m seeing. A lot of people who aren’t involved in either hunting or cattle production make assumptions about the ways that things are done and not recognizing that both groups are very instrumental in the conservation of the grasslands.”


In college, Kahler met and married a Wildlife & Fisheries major with a range minor and with him began to ranch in Colome, SD, where the two have been for about a decade. Through this experience, Kahler began to learn more about the other side of understanding grasslands: the perspective of what a producer needs in order to support a functional operation.


Prior to moving to South Dakota, Kahler’s Wisconsin education did not direct much attention to grasses.

“Our schools and 4-H programs talked a lot about trees, but I didn’t really know that much about grasses. Grass was grass. And until I moved here and started learning more, grass was just the green stuff that was covering the ground,” says Kahler. “My appreciation has totally switched as I learned about the species and the characteristics, to the point where now I’ll be out pheasant hunting, and instead of looking for pheasants, I’ll be looking at the ground getting excited about all the grasses that I’m seeing.”

 

South Dakota Grasslands Initiative - The Inspiration

This embrace of South Dakotan landscape was kickstarted by several different partners, especially the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.  The partners realized that that in South Dakota, diverse groups are very open to collaboration, however they realized that South Dakota would need more than openness to address the grasslands crisis. What was needed was some type of network for communication, from this need the South Dakota Grasslands Initiative was born. With funding that came in the fall of 2023, Kahler was brought on as executive director.  


In her short time as executive director, she notes: “I had a group of about 10 individuals from different organizations that I was working with,” said Kahler. “Each person had a very similar vision of what they wanted. But it’s kind of like the story of the blind individuals all looking at the elephant and imagining something different. We needed to all get on the same page and be sure we were looking at this from the same lens so we could move forward. The summer involved getting all the paperwork ready to launch this, and I started in August.”


One of the first intentions of the initiative was to reinvent who was considered a grassland partner. Traditionally, only those with explicit interest in grasslands were considered relevant to grassland management and decisions, such as ranchers or conservation groups. “But there are grassland partners beyond that,” explains Kahler. “Maybe it’s a person who works 8-5 in the office, but on the weekend, they go out hunting. Or maybe they just like to go bike through the grasslands, and just like to appreciate having that space and recognizing that part of being a South Dakotan is appreciating the grasslands.” The SDGI respects that real change begins with a recognition of the entirety of perspectives that are relevant to grasslands.


Within Kahler’s first week in the position, she was a part of the Americas Grassland Conference. This event enlightened her to the extent of grassland awareness and the breadth of the movement. This event motivated her to play her part and carry her weight regionally. She returned to South Dakota fresh with optimism and strategy to develop SDGI; its mission, values, and ensuing projects.

 

SDGI - The Mission

The mission of the South Dakota Grassland Initiative is to promote South Dakota grasslands through elevating public awareness and supporting those who want to make an impact, for the benefit of current and future generations.


The core values of the initiative are:

• Retention of South Dakota’s native prairie ecosystems

• Science-based education and decision making

• Acknowledgement of traditional knowledge

• Discussion that honors opposing viewpoints and perspectives

• Support for producers & landowners who want to improve grasslands

• Recognition that diversified income streams are essential to sustainable agricultural operations for the benefit of all South Dakotans


Kahler’s local work with the initiative seeks to support producers to make the best use of their land; for themselves, their family and their community. Culturally, there can be a lot of pressure to convert pasture or grasslands. “Even if that landowner recognizes that their family and community value the grassland, the soil, the birds, there can still be incredible pressure to make it profitable,” says Kahler. “I think it’s important that we provide the resources so that those who want to keep their land in grass have those resources there to say- help me learn how to be more profitable, help me use program.”

Kahler would like to enlighten producers, farmers and ranchers to the wealth of options that exist to widen their operations: regenerative grazing systems that enrich grasses, partners that can support more holistic land management, and education that can enhance understanding of what healthy grasslands need. The SDGI aims to engineer something comparable to crop insurance regarding healthy grassland practices, offering support for land managers to try new techniques.


“We’re not just looking at this from the hunter or rancher perspective, but also the rural community perspective. Grasslands are for everyone in the state,” says Kahler. “Through the initiative, we bring partners together to say, ‘What can we do to support those who want to keep their grasslands as grasslands, or even those with croplands that say- I have this marginal land, I want to revert it to grass, how can I do this? How do I enrich this as a habitat for wildlife, how can I find economic benefit from this land?’ Through the initiative, we’re hoping the partners can collaborate and address some of those questions for landowners.”

 

Long-term Projects and Goals

Since the South Dakota Grasslands Initiative is a network of partners, collaborative communication is central. The first quarterly partner meeting of the SDGI was held in October, and the second in January. These meetings are spaces where anybody who identifies as a grassland partner in South Dakota can contribute and share what they are actively working towards, what they aim to do, and what support they can provide.


Moving forward, the SDGI is organizing its first grasslands summit in March of 2024.

The summit will be a collection of producers of all kinds, anybody with a vested interest in grassland health, gathering for education and productive discussion. The South Dakota Grasslands Summit will be held on Monday, March 18, and Tuesday, March 19, in Oacoma. This premier event will focus on opportunities, challenges, and the significance of the grasslands in South Dakota. It will offer something for everyone- especially those involved in agricultural production, ag finance, wildlife, community health, and natural resources. Attendees will also be able to participate in shaping the future of South Dakota’s grassland heritage.


“Producers can hear stories from others explaining things such as, ‘Here’s how I added an enterprise, here’s how I made my grasslands more productive, here are programs available,’ and producers can then bring those fortifying ideas back to their operation. And even broader, even if financially one has no connection to the grasslands if they just value the grasslands or spend time there. Even if you just like going to take photos of grouse, come to the summit. We want to hear from you,” says Kahler.


The summit is structured around a series of educational, social, and collaborative activities. Through the summit, even those who are on the periphery of industry or struggling with the designation of their land can have just as much of a voice as traditional partners.


Furthermore, Kahler continues to utilize her background in agricultural education. For example, this year the theme of the national speech contest held by the Association of Conservation was ‘Working Grasslands, Why Do They Matter?’ Kahler saw this as an opportunity to not only encourage participation in the speech contest but also to distribute these speeches to high school teachers to bolster grasslands education in schools.


To get more info or register for the Grasslands Summit visit:


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