Bluestem Prairie Preserve is one of few places in the state where visitors can experience the vastness of the native prairie that once covered a great portion of western Minnesota and the Dakotas. Watching the prairie chickens "booming" in early spring is a special highlight, and blinds have been built to accommodate viewing. The opportunity to see migratory birds, and other native fauna and flora also makes a trip to Bluestem Prairie worthwhile.
Northwestern Minnesota, Clay County, near Moorhead
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
Despite its number of landowners, the preserve has remained in native prairie for the most part. Today, it is recognized as one of the largest and highest quality northern tallgrass prairies in the U.S. When Buffalo River State Park was established, it included only a small portion of native prairie and was used mainly for public recreation along the river. The park boundaries were enlarged significantly in the 1960's when concern grew over rapidly diminishing grassland. Today, the Conservancy is taking many active steps to ensure the protection of this increasingly rare natural treasure.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
The Nature Conservancy became actively involved in preserving this native prairie by acquiring more than 1,000 acres south of the Buffalo River in 1975. Since then, the Conservancy has acquired other parcels, enlarging the preserve and enhancing the habitat for native species. While most of the preserve has remained in its natural state, not all of the land escaped cultivation. Furrows are still evident in areas where plowing occurred. At one time, most of the prairie was hayed. Some of the preserve was used for grazing cattle and horses, and this has had an impact on prairie vegetation in specific areas.
The Conservancy manages the preserve through prescribed burning, conducting biological inventories, and controlling non-native species by hand-cutting, mowing and localized spraying. One of the most troublesome exotic plants is leafy spurge. In recent years, the Conservancy has restored more than 677 acres of prairie on the preserve which formerly had been ditched, farmed and used as a gravel pit.
School groups around Moorhead and Fargo use Bluestem Prairie for environmental education, and the preserve continues to be an important site for biological research by area colleges and universities across throughout the Midwest.
A male Greater prairie chicken "booming" on the prairie.
What to See: Plants
Bluestem Prairie harbors more than 313 plant species. Seven of these are designated by the State of Minnesota as species of special concern, including sedge, sticky false asphodel, small white lady's slipper, northern gentian, plains reed grass, blanket-flower, and oat-grass. The western prairie fringed orchid, a federally threatened species, also grows on the preserve.
What to See: Animals
The greater prairie chicken (listed as 'special concern' by the State) uses certain areas on the preserve as "booming" (courtship) grounds and nesting areas. Other birds found here include upland sandpiper, sandhill crane, marbled godwit (another species of special concern), loggerhead shrike (a threatened species), and Henslow's sparrow (an endangered species). Mammals include the plains pocket mouse and the prairie vole, both species of special concern. These rodents may provide prey for another species of special concern, the western hognose snake.
Three rare butterflies can be seen at the preserve: the Powesheik skipper and regal fritillary, both species of special concern, and the Dakota skipper, a threatened species. A multi-year research project on invertebrates conducted through North Dakota State University's entomology department has revealed that a rare beetle species, the prairie stinkbug, thrives on a portion of the preserve. This ongoing research project and similar ones are crucial to understanding the prairie's ecological systems and monitoring its needs.
You can visit Bluestem Prairie anytime, but reservations are necessary for the prairie chicken blinds; call the Conservancy's Northern Tallgrass Prairie Office at (218) 498-2679. For more information on visiting this and other Minnesota preserves, check out our Preserve Visitation Guidelines.
From Moorhead, drive east about 14 miles on U.S. Highway 10 to the intersection with MN Highway 9. Turn south and travel for 1.5 miles and then turn east on 17th Avenue South and continue for 1.5 miles and park in the lot on the north side of the road. To reach another parking area on the southeastern edge of the preserve, continue south on Highway 9 to Clay County Highway 12. Turn east and drive for about 3.5 miles. Nearest services are in Moorhead, Glyndon, Hawley and Buffalo River State Park.