At an elevation of approximately 1340 feet, Frenchman’s Bluff is one of the highest points in northwestern Minnesota. Perched hundreds of feet above the Red River Valley floor, it provides a majestic view of the Glacial Lake Agassiz basin. Here, you can touch the wispy pink seedheads of Prairie Smoke in spring that carpet the valley or watch dramatic summer thunderstorms march eastward across the plains.
Students from the University of Minnesota have visited and monitored this preserve for more than 50 years. In the 1960s when students noticed that grazing cattle and a gravel operation threatened to ruin this tallgrass prairie, they asked The Nature Conservancy to preserve it.
The preserve is located in the Flom township of Norman County, about five miles southeast of Twin Valley and 35 miles northeast of Fargo-Moorhead. From the village of Syre, take State Highway 113 east. Go north on County Road 36 for about one mile. The preserve is on the west side of the road.
The Ancients gathered moonwort by the light of the moon for its alleged magical powers. Alchemist once believed it could convert quicksilver to pure silver. This rare and elusive fern continues to capture the imagination. Indeed, its rarity contributes to its mystique. Two types of moonwort make their home here: prairie moonwort and Frenchman’s Bluff moonwort, one of two known sites in the state.
A glacier formed this sandy hill, or moraine, more than 9,000 years ago. Today, a rare mixture of tallgrass prairie plans and shorter grasses — normally seen much farther west — grow here. Hairy grama, needle grass and dropseed mingle with big bluestem.
Thimbleweed, blanket flower and skeleton weed are three of the 165 species of plants that call this 51-acre preserve home.
Fluttering amid this prairie’s flowers is the orange-and black Poweshiek skipper, a state special concern species, and the inch-wide Dakota skipper, a state-threatened species. This ever-so tiny insect may join the bald eagle, the gray wolf and a handful of other Minnesota animals on the national endangered species list. U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently declared it a candidate for the federal list. Frenchman’s Bluff is one of the few places in the state where it survives. In all, the profusion of prairie flowers supports 26 species of butterflies.
Birds and mammals also thrive here in abundance.
The rare northern grasshopper mouse lives here, as does 48 species of birds. Depending on the time of year, you could hear the song of a clay-colored sparrow or see the bright yellow belly of the western meadowlark.
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
Since University of Minnesota students through the Itasca Biological Station used this land to study prairies, saving it could wield powerful new information on conservation management. These future scientists beseeched the Conservancy to protect and preserve this land, and it did.
The Conservancy now leases the land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Scientific and Natural Areas Program.
Because of the Conservancy's non-confrontational approach, it is uniquely situated to work with a variety of partners. The process of how Frenchman's Bluff became a preserve exemplifies the importance the Conservancy places on working together.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
Spotted knapweed and yellow sweet clover are two of many invasive species that have invaded this land and threaten the health of its native plants. By controlling their proliferation, native plants can thrive. By mowing, spot spraying and conducting prescribed burns, the Conservancy can control the spread of invasive species while enhancing the native prairie.