Dordt College News

Service learning benefits bison

May 14, 2010

Education helps you move from knowing a little about something, to learning more, to doing something with what you’ve learned.

That’s an overly simple summary of Dr. Robb De Haan’s philosophy of education.

“By the end of the semester students have learned some things and are ready to use them,” he says with his trademark smile. So that’s what they did in his environmental studies lab last semester. The lab introduces students to the biological side of environmental studies, looking at how organisms depend on water and nutrient cycles, understanding the process of succession—how an ecosystem sustains itself, and considering the implications of disrupted systems for endangered species and conservation work. De Haan also wanted his students to see firsthand the importance of conservation.

The several thousand acres that make up Broken Kettle Grasslands have never been plowed. But they were grazed, so the area is lined with brokendown, rusting barbed wire fences, hindering both people and animals.With knowledge in hand, De Haan’s students traveled to Broken Kettle Grassland, a 4,000-acre plot of land southwest of Dordt College managed by the Nature Conservancy to preserve and sustain the natural diversity of the prairie. The class used some of what they’d learned and, De Haan hoped, cemented it in their minds as well.

“They remember better when they get out of the classroom,” says De Haan.

Broken Kettle, which was an undisturbed prairie until the 1870s, is part of only 0.1 percent of land in this country that is original prairie—land that has never been tilled for agriculture. Because of that, it still contains plants that are native to the region and that are best suited to the ecosystem of the area, even though more intensive grazing of the land has altered the kind of vegetation found there today.

“It was interesting to see how the principles we studied in class were applied to an area around Dordt,” said Michelle Alkema from Pugwash Junction, Nova Scotia. To learn more about the bison at Broken Kettle Grasslands visit the Nature Conservancy's website at appreciated the fact that going to Broken Kettle helped her see the value of conservancies as well as see how a conservancy is run and what an employee at a conservancy might do.

De Haan and members of his class worked with an employee of the Nature Conservancy to remove old barbed wire from its posts, roll it up to be taken away, and pull out the posts of a half mile of fencing.

The project was much more than a tidying up effort though. Bison were reintroduced to the area in late 2008 to help recreate a biodiverse ecosystem of species that support one another and keep the area thriving. The bison occasionally get tangled in the collapsed and rusted fencing—and employees found it dangerous as they worked with the bison. Plus, the fencing makes it difficult to practice patch-burning rotational grazing because it prevents the bison from moving around freely.

Patch burning means that different sections of the prairie are burned at different times. Bison prefer grass on prairies that burn periodically, noted the students in a poster they created to describe what they had learned. Bison eat the tall grass, leaving behind the forbs (broad leaf plants) and biomass that help create a natural life cycle. This, over time, keeps the prairie sustainable and healthy. The bison move from area to area, thereby allowing the plants and other fauna to rejuvenate themselves.

“By pulling out fencing, we were helping out a herd of buffalo so that they wouldn’t get caught in it,” said Steve Nugteren from Pella, Iowa. “It gave me a sense of accomplishment because we were helping restore a piece of land to be closer to the way God had originally designed it.”


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