Native prairie once covered as much as 18 million acres of Minnesota.
A hallmark of this prairie was its rich diversity of grasses and flowering forbs, often as many as 200 species per acre. Now, most of the native prairie is gone, with only about 235,000 acres surviving. Unfortunately, the loss and degradation of prairie and other grasslands continue, due to agricultural conversion driven by high crop prices, the expiration of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts, and new technologies for rock removal and water drainage.
The Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, developed by 10 conservation agencies and organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, is a response to these losses. Download a copy (5.72 mb) of the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's website.
The Minnesota Prairie plan calls for three approaches: conservation of prairie core areas, development of corridors connecting the core areas, and local projects within the surrounding agricultural landscape.
Prairie Core Areas
Thirty-six areas with concentrations of native prairie have been identified in Minnesota. These are special places where some of our prairie heritage still exists and where grass-based agriculture remains part of the economic base. These places range from 5,000 to 300,000 acres in size, totaling about 1.6 million acres. Together they capture 77 percent of the native tallgrass prairie in state. The goal for these core areas is to maintain or restore 40 percent to prairie or grassland and 20 percent to wetland. The remaining 40 percent would continue to be used for row cropping and other development.
Even if all of the prairie core areas are protected, many prairie plants and animals will have difficulty moving between them to recolonize or claim new habitat. Such movement is essential to maintain genetic integrity and population viability, especially when confronted with the impacts of climate change. The Minnesota Prairie Plan identifies a set of corridors, each six miles wide, which will connect the prairie core areas. The goal for the corridors is to have at least 10 percent of each section of land (64 acres) in perennial cover as well as large (four to nine square mile) grassland/wetland complexes spaced every six miles along the corridor as “stepping stones.”
To maintain the full range of local genetic variability of prairie plants and animals, we will have to conserve not just the core areas but also smaller grasslands and wetlands in all parts of the state where prairie once occurred. This approach will provide small pockets of local ecotypes scattered around the state that can be the source of prairie and native plant restoration projects, the foundation of water quality and flood retention efforts, and utilized for outdoor recreation. The Minnesota Prairie Plan proposes that a minimum of 10 percent of each different land type in the state’s tallgrass prairie region be maintained in permanent perennial vegetation.
Most of the conservation work in the agricultural areas will take the form of stream buffers, grass strips, and habitat restorations, but to achieve the maximal results, it will be important to strategically locate the projects.
Even with substantial new public conservation funding, the success Minnesota has in maintaining and restoring its prairie heritage will largely depend on private action. In areas of the world where large areas of native grasslands have survived, it is usually because local residents can earn a greater net return from grass-based agriculture, such as grazing livestock, than they can by tilling and annually planting the land. That will need to be the case in Minnesota as well if we want to have more than scattered reserves and wildlife management areas.
The Minnesota Prairie Plan endorses the use of public funding and lands to catalyze the growth and health of grass-based agriculture in the prairie core areas. Minnesota needs to protect its remaining prairies, but it also needs to buffer and reconnect them with restored grasslands and wetlands.August 30, 2012
Steve Chaplin is a senior conservation scientist and prairie coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota.