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Minnesota

Glacial Ridge: A Prairie for Everyone

Glacial Ridge’s prairie chicken population is booming due to the restoration.

The restoration of tallgrass prairie and wetlands at Glacial Ridge restored a large tallgrass prairie landscape and provided valuable habitat for wildlife. It has also provided many benefits for people including clean drinking water.

Nitrates from animal waste saturated the ground below Glacial Ridge’s abandoned feedlots, threatening the city of Crookston’s drinking water supply. Now that Glacial Ridge has been restored, nitrate readings have dropped to safe levels, and the city has added two new wells for drinking water – drilling them both at Glacial Ridge.

Cattle once again graze at Glacial Ridge, replicating the role bison once played on the prairie. The Conservancy has sold or donated most of the restored property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the land now forms the core of Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge. For the past two years, the FWS has invited local ranchers to graze their cattle on 2,000 acres of the refuge. The cattle move from pasture to pasture, attracted to the tender, green grass that grows after a prairie has been burned. In this way, they resemble the nomadic bison, never overgrazing an area but grazing it enough to keep the grass short and give wildflowers a chance to grow. This patch burn grazing strategy for managing the prairie is increasing plant diversity and fattening cattle – a win-win for ranchers and conservationists.

Before Glacial Ridge was restored, nearby residents worried about the possibility of increased flooding. The risk has actually declined since wetlands at Glacial Ridge now store and absorb water, reducing run-off into area streams and rivers. Hydrologists began collecting data at Glacial Ridge soon after restoration started so this benefit would be well-documented. Their research may also be more broadly useful. A detailed understanding of the effect of Glacial Ridge’s restoration on the movement of groundwater and surface water is expected to guide other prairie and wetland restoration projects in western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, including potential natural flood control improvements in the Red River Basin.

But visitors to the refuge don’t see hydrology, they see wildflowers and wildlife. Dave Bennett, FWS manager of Glacial Ridge, is eager to showcase the refuge to the public. Plans are underway to build an interpretive walking trail, and school groups and university students already use the refuge as an outdoor classroom for nature study and research. “I want the public to see and experience the wide variety of plants and animals native to the tallgrass prairie; to understand why it’s important not to lose this habitat,” Bennett says.

There is perhaps no better way to experience the magic of the prairie than by watching greater prairie chickens dance in the early spring. The birds perform their courting displays at dawn on well-defined “booming grounds,” and they can be observed close-up from blinds on the refuge that can be reserved at no charge through the Crookston Chamber of Commerce. Visitors from several states (and a few from overseas) have taken advantage of this opportunity, rising early and finding their way to a blind in the dark to be entertained at sunrise by these “prairie grouse” that fan their feathers, stamp their feet and hoot and gurgle to attract a mate. Glacial Ridge is prime chicken habitat and their numbers are up, nearly twice as many as in the early ’70s before the project began. Prairie chickens are so numerous at Glacial Ridge that birds there have been trapped and moved elsewhere in Minnesota and even to Wisconsin to help save its prairie chicken population.

Prairie chickens aren’t the only birds to have thrived at Glacial Ridge. Ducks are abundant, and the refuge is a popular hunting destination in the fall. Sandhill cranes nest on the refuge and arrive in the thousands during migration; on one occasion, a flock included several rare whooping cranes. Burrowing owls, the only known population in the state, have nested at Glacial Ridge. Bennett and others are eagerly watching for them to return.

“We knew that putting Glacial Ridge back together again was an unprecedented gamble,” said Peggy Ladner, who serves as director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota.

“But with a lot of help from our partners, Glacial Ridge is paying off for wildlife, the local community and Minnesotans and others who come out and visit. It shows that if you think big and work smart with others, there’s no limit to what can be accomplished.”

Glacial Ridge: A Prairie Reborn

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