Sheep should help shear weeds, restore Pilot Knob prairie (reprint)

UPDATE: Sheep were again brought to Pilot Knob in spring 2016 see photos >>>





Even with a clear view of Minneapolis, sheep keep their eyes on their work, diligently grazing on invasive grass at Pilot Knob Preservation Site in Mendota Heights. (Jesse Poole/Review)


Two of the six sheep, stirred from their meal, prefer a more natural backdrop than a city skyline. (Jesse Poole/Review)


When comparing the work of sheep to the height of a flock of wild turkeys, it’s clear the sheep are doing a good job keeping the grass low. Here, grasses grow taller than the 3-foot-tall birds. (Jesse Poole/Review)


An 1850 map by R. Jones Colby shows the confluence of the Minnesota (here called St. Peters) and Mississippi rivers. The diamond-shaped walls of Fort Snelling are left of Pike Island and Pilot Knob is labeled at bottom right. (Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

Armed with botany guides, education and a keen eye for leaf shapes and petal numbers, conservationists can discern native from invasive plants and identify them by species, genus and family. But what then, faced with fields full of bluegrass or groves clogged with saplings?

That’s when the conservationists call in the sheep.

The fleecy ruminants don’t know or care what species or genus they’re gobbling up, but they may prove an efficient tool to remove invasives.

Local resources

As part of a project to restore the natural landscape at Pilot Knob in Mendota Heights, Dodge Nature Center will move six of its sheep to that open space, in late-spring and early-summer intervals, to graze on problematic grasses.

As Dodge Nature Center farm director Don Oberdorfer puts it, his responsibility is just to get the animals in place; they’ll put their heads down and get to work from there.

“We’re just a helper in this project,” Oberdorfer says. “We provide the sheep.”

Great River Greening, an organization based in St. Paul, aims to restore selected landscapes to their original state and is heading up the project at the Pilot Knob Preservation Site along with the City of Mendota Heights and the Pilot Knob Preservation Association.

Pairing a local project with the animals available at nearby West St. Paul’s Dodge Nature Center sounded like a good partnership, Oberdorfer explains.

This isn’t the first time Pilot Knob, originally called Oheyawahi by the Dakota people, has seen grazing animals.
In fact that’s the point.

Other than last year — when Dodge first lent sheep and goats to munch on grasses and goldenrod — the history and survival of prairie land is shrouded and dependent upon grazing creatures such as bison, deer, elk and even grasshoppers. Other than some insects, those animals no longer dwell on the knob which overlooks the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers and the skyline of Minneapolis.

“We’d all like to transform the space back into a prairie,” Oberdorfer said. “In order to do that, the idea is to simulate the natural workings of a prairie.”
Albeit using different animals.

The works of sheep

Though it’s a little too soon to tell, experts say that sheep and goats should be a viable alternative to the wildlife that historically maintained prairie land.

“Those sheep have a lot of work to do,” Great River Greening restoration ecologist Wiley Buck said. “They’re working to set back non-native cool-season grasses by essentially over-grazing them.”

And, as the hungry sheep unknowingly help accomplish the first goal, there’s yet another objective afoot.

Before bringing in the sheep, Great River Greening scatters native prairie grass seed on the site. As the sheep work their way through the unwanted grass, they also work the seeds into the soil with their hooves.

Across the country, from Iowa to Oregon, controlled grazing by sheep, goats and even cattle is being tried to help restore key prairies and grasslands. Locally, it’s somewhat untested but seems promising.

“We hope to find that this is a conservation technique with the potential to reduce the use of herbicide spray and other unnatural methods of tending land,” Buck says.

Great River Greening has used this technique only a few times, and being relatively new to it, they are still monitoring and studying its effectiveness, with help from a grant provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Buck predicts the project’s participants will know by July 1 if it’s working the way they hope. If the prairie grass seed germinates, that means success.

And then it’s to the goats.

IGH goes for goats

Conservationists point out that it isn’t only non-native species that can invade landscapes. In many local cases, issues arise when there is an overabundance of native plant life, or when native plants are growing in the wrong spots.

Macalester College’s Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area in Inver Grove Heights will use goats to eat aspen and sumac, employing yet another natural and well-developed tool in the prairie-management kit.

Sheep are grazers, eating grasses and other groundcoverings; goats are browsers, which choose saplings, shrubs and other plants.

They’re the perfect choice to mow down aspen and sumac whips. Both types of tree are native to the area, but can take over if not controlled.

“They’re native, but they out-compete and out-shade the prairie plants,” Ordway’s program director Jerald Dosch explains. “Historically, natural fires and bison would have kept them out.”

The humans who’ve since developed and settled in the area would probably not be comfortable with acres-wide fires used as a renewal technique, much less roaming bison.

“We’re using goats, in essence, as a proxy,” Dosch says. “And my guess is that it will work nicely.”

This site, also called the Ordway Field Station, has been designated by the college for “biological and environmental education, research, and the protection and management of natural environments.” According to Macalester resources, Ordway, known as “The Lady Who Saved the Prairies,” contributed the $150,000 that purchased the site in 1967.

Ordway Field Station has already used goats in a trial run last fall, but Dosch says the effort should produce more visible results in spring and summer.

Another reason to use goats, he says, is they’re generally cost-effective. Typically, other non-farm animals are more expensive, and difficult to track down, contain and care for.

When elk roamed

And they’re a lot smaller than their predecessors.

“Elk were the main natives to this area and they lived in big herds,” Buck explains of the region before Europeans arrived.

Unlike bison, Buck says, elk stayed in the area through the winter, browsing on saplings once the grass died or was covered by snow.

This contributed to the oak savannas settlers found in the 1800s, with towering stands of hardwood trees protected by the browsers which ate their competition.

In addition, Buck notes, methods such as burning and mowing leave grasses at an even-level height. Those methods are not selective, whereas with browsing and grazing, “we get a mosaic of vegetation height, which can be really good for birds and other wildlife.”

Pilot Knob will also benefit from goat browsing, as Great River Greening trades them for the sheep later in the summer.

The organization will also team up with the national Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation at Pilot Knob in July to survey the bumblebee population and find ways to preserve the pollinators.

“There are uncountable dynamics to any environment,” Buck said. “And we’re doing what we can to restore Pilot Knob to how it was before.”

Jesse Poole can be reached at or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at

What’s the significance of Pilot Knob?

Gail Lewellan of Mendota Heights, who co-chairs the Pilot Knob Preservation Association, explains the site is more than a science experiment.

“Pilot Knob, or Oheyawahi, was a site of cultural and historical importance before Europeans arrived in the area,” Lewellan says. “It was a strategic location from a transportation point of view and even back then it was rich in cultural history.”

In addition to prior tribal meetings and ceremonies, Pilot Knob became a signing site for one of the 1851 Dakota Land Cession Treaties, in which the Dakota people ceded most of the land in southeastern Minnesota to the U.S. government.

The treaty proved disastrous for the Dakota, setting in motion events that led to the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War and hangings of 38 men at Fort Snelling, just across the river from Pilot Knob. Although the executions took place in December, 1862, another 1,600 Dakota people were held all winter in a camp at Fort Snelling.

Many died during that time and some were buried on Pilot Knob.

As well as remembering the area’s human history, the association has ecological maps and records which help describe the land’s characteristics over time.

“To be true to the historical and cultural significance of the site, we strongly support this effort and plan to restore the site’s ecology and natural features, to make it as it once was.” Lewellan says.

It’s especially appropriate, she says, that the restoration will involve animals.

“Of course there were grazers back then. Maybe not sheep, but it’s better than the use of methods like modern chemicals to approximate a natural process.”

Recently, the association received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society for the purpose of researching and submitting a nomination for Pilot Knob to be added to National Register of Historic Places.

Mendota Heights assistant to the city administrator Tamara Schutta says the city — which owns Pilot Knob — is committed to restoring the area and sees value in pursuing the long-term project.

“The city owns that land now, and we’ve teamed up with Great River Greening for years for its restoration,” Schutta said.

Pilot Knob means many things to many people: a place where a bit of Minnesota’s ecological past can be recreated, a stage for historic events or just a natural amenity that shouldn’t be developed.

To Sharon Lennartson, the land’s value is both more clear and more important. Lennartson is the tribal chairwoman of Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community, headquartered in the City of Mendota.

“We believe this land is sacred,” Lennartson said. “It’s gotta be preserved.”

The preservation of respect

“We’re really pleased that people seem to be respecting the animals and our equipment out there,” restoration ecologist Wiley Buck said, speaking of Great River Greening’s project to restore the ecology of the Pilot Knob Preservation Site in Mendota Heights.

Though the organization’s project seems to be respected, and hands are off the electric fences, city officials say the site itself has recently seen a series of disrespect and misuse, especially by youth and teenagers.

According to the Mendota Heights police department, Pilot Knob Preservation Site is meant for people of all ages to enjoy during the day and to take in views of the Mendota Bridge, Fort Snelling and plans taking off or landing at the International Airport.

But in a statement to the city, the police department wrote, “Unfortunately it seems local teens have found this spot and claimed it for their own. All too often police officers find large groups of kids having bonfires in the Meditation Circle and [illegally] drinking at night. Not only do local kids partake, but kids from all around the metro travel here to party.”

According to city ordinances that apply to the area, the site is only open between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and being found on the site on the other side of those designated hours could lead to being cited or jailed.

“I wasn’t aware that this was happening,” chairwoman of Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community Sharon Lennartson said. “This isn’t good.”
Lennartson is a descendant of Little Crow, a Dakota chief who signed the 1851 treaty moving his band of Dakota from their land to a reservation in hopes it would save them. She explains that both Pilot Knob and Mendota are viewed as sacred land to the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community.

Though the tribe’s heritage dates back much further, the community will be celebrating 20 years of continuous operations on June 27 at St. Peters Church from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lennartson explains that retaining traditions and keeping key sites like Pilot Knob are especially important to the Dakota. It wasn’t until the 1970s that indigenous peoples in Minnesota were allowed to partake in their culture and hold ceremonies, even on their own land.

“Everything was once taken from us, both land and culture,” Lennartson says. “We can only move on.”

But the disrespect some young people have for what she believes to be sacred land makes moving forward a little more difficult, she says.