Talking at length about growing grass, finding better ways to treat the soil and the creatures that are linked to that soil keep Shaun Grassel involved and interested.
By Mike Cox
Growing up around the sprawling openness of the Lower Brule Reservation, Shaun Grassel was continuously exposed to nature on his grandparents’ ranches. Shaun’s mother made sure he was present during fall and spring cattle events like roundups, calf sorting, and branding.
His mother’s observance of the natural world influenced Shaun greatly. She kept notes on her calendar each year recording the initial instance of significant events. Maybe the first Robin each spring, or the first Mourning Dove she saw. It could be lilacs blooming, or the day she saw geese traveling north or south for the season. “I wish I could go back and collect all of her calendars.”
Those early years really underlined how important the surrounding world was. Shaun’s mother would load the kids in the car for a tornado sighting, or to watch a meteor shower. “Being on my grandparents’ farms and ranches and just watching her track wildlife. That just really imprinted on me.”
At age ten, Shaun’s family moved back to the reservation, and he became this “curious little kid” wandering the open spaces that stretched in all directions. Along with his dog, he would explore the creeks, and wander up and down the Missouri River in all types of weather.
“It didn't matter what time of year it was, I would be out exploring in the dead of winter, be out at night. Summer times were full of adventures and so that just imprinted on me. And then when I got older and was trying to figure out what I'm gonna do with my life, you know, being a wildlife biologist was just kind of a natural step. I'll be 50 here this next year and I've been extremely lucky. It's just what I love to do.”
Shaun received his bachelor’s and master’s degree at South Dakota State University, and earned his Ph.D. at Idaho State in Moscow, Idaho. After college, he moved back home and took a job working for the Lower Brule Reservation’s Wildlife, Fish and Recreation Department (WFRD). Dr. Grassel is now Director of Programs, Stewarding Native Lands for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
When the black tailed prairie dog was petitioned to be declared endangered, the department began analyzing the robust existing prairie dog population to decide how to react. This study eventually led to black footed ferrets, the natural predator of prairie dogs, and their connection to prairie dog species control.
Shaun, and the WFRD, concluded that a significant population of black footed ferret kept the prairie dog population limited without using other means of control, and the presence of cattle keep the mound villages small enough to limit damage. This conclusion is controversial among ranchers but a program to substitute ferrets for poison is working in some places.
About three years ago, Shaun began ranching on family land. His initial plan was to continue as those before him had, but he wanted to improve the land, reintroduce cattle, and improve wildlife habitat. He also became interested in native grass species and rangeland diversity in the process.
“From a wildlife biologist perspective, I’d like to see Prairie dog colonies out there, but I also like to see areas that have taller grass. We started going through this process and we're still very much in the early stages of putting cross fences out there, developing water sources.”
As Shaun is still in the early stages of establishing ranch infrastructure, where cross fencing is not available, he relies on water to move the animals where they need to be. This allows him to utilize land further away from the Missouri river which was in the past underutilized because of a lack of water.
Shaun is also experimenting with alternative means of pest control, for example he’s using pour-ons for internal parasites that are safe for dung beetles (they are abundant on Sean’s land), and he switched from fly tags to adding garlic in the mineral feeder.
“..s.so it goes through their body and basically makes them stinky or something and so it lowers the fly load”
Shaun has also modified fencing to improve conditions for wildlife. The lower fence strand is 18” above ground and smooth rather than barbed. This allows animals like pronghorn that can’t jump high to traverse the fence easily and doesn’t affect the cattle. The top strand is 42” rather than 48, which allows wildlife that can jump to easily clear those barriers.
While still experimenting with different grasses like big bluestem and western wheatgrass for seed, Shaun gets three crops from his big bluestem field: Cut early for hay, harvest seeds when ready, and finally a late cut for straw. He is still experimenting a lot and changing things on a regular basis, focusing primarily on soil health and wildlife preservation.
“You talk about mindset. My grandfather did the same thing every year. I'm always doing something different. The decisions that we make keep wildlife kind of front and center and not only the wildlife but the pollinators and the insects. All those things are important to us.”
Dr. Grassel is now Director of Programs, Stewarding Native Lands for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and can be reached at https://www.firstnations.org/staff/shaun-grassel/ Dr. Shaun Grassel’s Research Gate profile also provides one with an insight into his research interests https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Shaun-Grassel Also please visit the SD NRCS Range and Pasture website for more information at: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/sd/technical/landuse/pasture/
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