Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Chase Lake Prairie Project

Location: The Chase Lake Prairie Project spans eleven counties - Chase Lake itself is southwest of Woodworth, ND.

Owner/manager: US Fish and Wildlife Service and many partners.

Directions: The Chase Lake NWR headquarters is three miles east of Woodworth – where Highway 36 swings north in downtown Woodworth stay on 19th Street going east (5924 19th St SE).

To reach Chase Lake NWR from the southeast at Interstate 94 exit 230 (Medina, ND): Go north on Highway 30 eleven and a half miles to 26th Street SE and turn left. Go west on 26th Street four miles to where 26th Street merges with another road coming in from the north and becomes the very rough and narrow Prairie Trail, which requires much patience and a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Go west on the Prairie Trail four miles to the Chase Lake NWR entrance road and turn left. Go south on the entrance road one mile to a parking area with some interpretive signs. This area sits on a saddle between Chase Lake to the southeast and Fisher Lake to the northwest. There is no general public access beyond the overlook. Free. No camping. No pets.

The Chase Lake Prairie Project is the largest prairie restoration effort within the United States. Most people have never heard of it and even if they have by and large can not visit it.

Besides being largely unknown to the general public the Chase Lake Prairie Project is also something of an invisible project. A visitor to the district in late summer would simply see a lot of cropped pasturage on private land. To participate in the district’s conservation easement program a landowner gets a payment of 15 to 20% of the land’s value in exchange for agreeing to keep the land planted in native grass, not haying before July 15 and often agreeing to an alternating pattern of grazing. The point here is not really prairie restoration for its own merits but preserving grassland habitat for nesting birds in early summer.

The project is centered on the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota's Stutsman County and spills out into a complex system of conservation easements on 5.5 million acres in eleven adjoining counties. In the northern Great Plains the size of this restoration project is rivaled only by four other projects: the Glacial Ridge Project and Wallace C Dayton Conservation Area in northwest Minnesota and the Lostwood Wetland Management District and Tewaukon Wetland Management District in North Dakota. Of these the Tewaukon Wetland Management District likely is the largest tallgrass prairie restoration while the project at Chase Lake protects mostly mixed grass prairie. The exact number of grassland acres at these projects is difficult to pin down since their grassland ecosystems grade into extensive seasonal wetlands and aspen parkland (a type of northern savanna).

Now perhaps the vistor to this website – particularly if he or she is an American citizen subject to federal income tax – at this point might be thinking that the goals of the Chase Lake Prairie Project are all well and good, prairie potholes on the northern Great Plains are certainly worth preserving, but does the financing of this project necessarily represent the highest and wisest use of public funds chosen impartially against the many other worthy endeavors that compete for government financing? Or, to frame this as a more blunt rhetorical question, is this largest of prairie restorations a bit of a boondoggle? Why of course it is – this is North Dakota.

In defense of the Chase Lake Prairie Project it can be argued that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is to a large extent a self-supporting agency through various fees that sportsmen pay, and the landowners involved are giving up something of value when they agree to limit some economic activities on their land. Quite a bit of money to preserve this area is also coming from private partners – the taxpaying public is really on the hook for only a small fraction of the project’s total cost. Additionally, the power of the federal government to regulate isolated nonnavigable wetlands such as prairie potholes has been considerably scaled back since a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2001. The Army Corp of Engineers previously had broad authority to prevent the draining of most wetlands based upon the implied federal right to regulate navigable waters contained within the Interstate Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. The government and its partners must now pay cash for what before they might have preserved through decree and a lengthy permit process.

Regardless of what one may think of the financing of the Chase Lake Prairie Project the heart of the project – the refuge that surrounds Chase Lake – is a most remarkable place. Chase Lake is not a typical prairie pothole. Most potholes in the northern Great Plains are relatively shallow and differ considerably from the lakes one might encounter in the boundary waters of Minnesota or the upper peninsula of Michigan. On a calm northern Minnesota lake one can often look down – perhaps with some hunger and anticipation – through deep crystal clear water and see big bug-eyed walleye who in turn gaze up at you with what would appear to be amusement and disdain. In the prairie potholes region the lakes are usually shallow and cloudy and often dry up altogether in the late summer. This drying up is not altogether a bad thing from the standpoint of biological diversity as a second set of plants comes to life and the aquatic plants and animals of late spring die or enter dormancy. Chase Lake differs from a typical prairie pothole in that it is large, does not dry up, has no outlet to any stream and is so alkaline that not very much lives in it. This unique environment each spring attracts an immense breeding colony of American white pelicans Pelecanus erythrorhynchos – the only colony now in North Dakota and rivaled in size only by another at Gunnison Island within the Great Salt Lake of Utah.

Pelicans in general are known for their voracious appetite for fish so it may seem odd that American white pelicans in North Dakota would choose to nest exclusively at one particular lake that has no fish. The reason for this may rest largely in the collective behavior of this highly social bird. American white pelicans are attuned to group dynamics. When a group of these birds fly they often glide or flap their wings in unison. When feeding they typically dip their bills simultaneously and are even known to surround and drive groups of fish in the same manner that wolves stalk their prey. John James Audubon writing in 1837 in his Birds of America provided a couple of specific examples of a group of American white pelicans synchronizing their behavior:

‘Should one chance to gape, all, as if by sympathy, in succession open their long and broad mandibles, yawning lazily and ludicrously’


‘…swimming for about a hundred yards in an extended line, and parallel to each other, they would rise on wing, wheel about, and realight at the place where their fishing had commenced, when they would repeat the same actions.’

If it were possible to peer into the mind of a pelican one would probably find a broad mimicry reflex, a consciousness with a steady focus on the other pelicans nearby and – Who knows? – perhaps an apparent example of ornithological telepathy. Regardless of the exact means by which the collective will becomes the individual will most of these birds probably follow a few leaders who in turn are imprinted to return to this one unique place each year.

Still, the question remains: What do thousands of pelicans eat at a lake that has little aquatic life? The short answer is that the American white pelicans at Chase Lake eat fish (particularly carp), crayfish and amphibians only not at Chase Lake itself. The pelicans here each day fan out thirty or forty miles from Chase Lake and hunt for food in small prairie potholes and a few meandering streams. As these bodies of water dry up in the summer heat the prey becomes easier to hunt. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department over the years has tagged walleye and northern pike throughout the state and occasionally tags from locations as far as two hundred miles away have been found within the pelican nesting colony at Chase Lake (Johnson, Robert F. and Norman F. Sloan. White Pelican Production and Survival of Young at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota. The Wilson Bulletin, Volume 90, Number 3, Sept 1978. pp 346-352). The distance traveled in search of fish might seem far but the American white pelican is a very lightweight bird for its large size. Additionally, Chase Lake is in a bowl shaped depression so often in the summer there are strong thermals above the surrounding terrain that these birds can catch and then glide to their feeding destinations expending little energy along the way.

The Chase Lake NWR website posts annual pelican population statistics going back to 1972. The population of American white pelicans at Chase Lake has previously peaked at around 30,000 adults and seems to follow a pattern of long steady increases in numbers with an occasional precipitous decline. After the pelican population reached a maximum in 2000 the numbers have been on a downward trend. Many pelicans abandoned their nests in 2004 as a possible result of coyote predation and in 2005 due to cold windy weather. In 2006 and 2007 the numbers were up but the birds avoided nesting on a peninsula where most of the coyote predation had occurred in 2004. Pelicans compared to other birds are long-lived but typically produce only two eggs annually per breeding pair of adults. There is some degree of competition between older and younger siblings that may intensify during years of stress but the reasons behind the occasional mass abandonment of pelican nests are not completely understood.

The presence of the pelican colony means that the mixed grass prairie surrounding Chase Lake is largely off limits to humans during much of the warmer months. The two track Prairie Trail that enters the refuge along the northern boundary goes by an upland mixed grass prairie that has some taller grasses in the disturbance created by the road itself. Here you may see or hear in late spring various grassland birds. A little bit further from the road much of the grassland is composed of mid-grasses. One of the dominant grasses here – Green Needlegrass Nassella viridula – deserves better recognition as a common prairie grass. It is found extensively throughout the northern Great Plains and western Canada.

Green needlegrass was once included in the very large genus Stipa. Within the United States and Canada the former Stipa grasses have since been assigned to several new genera, primarily Hesperostipa, Achnatherum or Nassella. The boundaries between these generic divisions are soft in the sense that hybridization sometimes occur – green needlegrass Nassella viridula can hybridize with Indian ricegrass Achnatherum hymenoides for example. However these newer taxonomic divisions are not simply based on some obscure difference in plant morphology but on differences that effect how these grasses disperse themselves and tolerate drought. The former Stipa grasses are characterized by elongated awns – a slender projection of the lower bract that encloses a grass floret. These awns serve an important role in the reproduction and distribution of the plant in that they can imbed themselves in the fur and skin of passing animals and thereby hitch a ride to new localities. The awns also imbed themselves into soil – with changes in moisture the awns expand and contract in a spiral motion and slowly drill themselves below the surface where their attached fruits have a better chance of survival. The grasses with long sharp awns are particularly adept at doing this – therefore it makes sense that they have been placed in their own genus Hesperostipa. The Stipa grasses that were placed in Nassella have much shorter awns and are primarily from South America. Green needlegrass Nassella viridula is the northernmost grass in its genus. The ‘green’ part of both its common and scientific name would seem to be not very descriptive with respect to a grass but in the context of where it grows it ‘greens up’ a little bit earlier than surrounding grasses in the spring and stays green longer into the summer than most other cool season grasses. This grass in the Dakotas is a cool season mid-grass and can be quickly identified in the field by its short awns which have a characteristic double bend (‘twice geniculate’).

Chase Lake NWR was set aside as a bird reservation under an executive order signed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, who prior to his presidency had spent many years ranching in North Dakota and took a keen interest in birds in general. At the time the refuge was established American white pelicans still nested at a number of other sites on the northern Great Plains but the pelican population at Chase Lake was down to almost nothing. Since then many of the other nesting colonies have been abandoned while the colony at Chase Lake has greatly expanded. If Theodore Roosevelt were alive today he no doubt would heartily approve of what has happened at Chase Lake in the many intervening years. As for the white pelicans floating in the blue sky above the green needlegrass their minds are in unison - whatever their opinion may be it is unanimous.