In the early 1980s, prairie enthusiasts found several rare plant species at Red Rock Prairie. One of these plants was the unassuming prairie bush clover. This easily-overlooked clover is state-listed as endangered and federally listed as threatened. It is found today at fewer than 40 sites in 23 counties of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Prairie bush clover's rarity is probably best explained by the loss of its tallgrass prairie habitat. At the time of European settlement, native prairies covered a third of Minnesota. Only scattered remnants of prairie can be found today.
Many remaining prairie bush clover populations occur in places that escaped the plow because they were too steep or rocky. That's the case at Red Rock Prairie, where outcrops of Sioux quartzite prevented the land from being tilled. The population at this preserve is doing well, and evidence of prairie bush clover / round headed bush clover hybrids has been found. Now with the prairie restoration work completed in 2007, bush clover may expand its range across the preserve.
Take U.S. Highway 71 north from Windom 15 miles to Highway 10. Travel east on Highway 10 five miles to Highway 45, which is a gravel road. Go south one and one-half miles. The preserve is on the east and west sides of the road. Parking is available on the east side of the road near the main sign.
Red Rock Prairie is in lose proximity to Jeffers Petroglyphs and Red Rock Dells, which harbor unique native American and geological attractions.
You can spot prairie bush clover by its grayish-silver sheen. The clover's pale pink or cream colored flowers bloom in mid-July. It's not the only species facing threats though. Around these same rocky outcrops that protected the clover from decimation, there are others rare plants such as tumblegrass, buffalo grass and mousetail.
Other prairie plants seen on the preserve include big bluestem, Indian grass, gray-headed coneflower, round-headed bush clover and Maximilian's sunflower. On wet sites at the base of slopes are cordgrass, bird-foot violet, phlox and coreopsis.
A bubbling pip-pip-pip-pip along with a high whr-r-reep, whreeeow pierces the springtime air at Red Rock Prairie. The long-legged upland sandpiper - known as the shorebird of the prairie - makes its unmistakable call during springtime breeding season. Upland sandpipers migrate all the way from Pampas of Argentina to nest here.
Other birds that can be sees here include short-eared owls and golden plovers. The regal fritillary, a species of special concern, also inhabits Red Rock Prairie. The preserve originally supported the poweshiek skipper, a now federally endangered species, but it has not been documented here in recent years. Red Rock Prairie is also home to a variety of mammals, including jackrabbits, coyotes and deer.
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
The Nature Conservancy preserved and protected this land because of the prairie bush clover. There is a thriving, healthy population of this plant here, along with smaller, scattered throughout the region.
The Conservancy, however, is preserving more than just this rare plant. Tallgrass prairie communities, such as Red Rock prairie, are globally endangered. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Minnesota's original prairies remain.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
Fire once was part of the natural cycle of life on the prairie. It cleaned out underbrush, killed invasive plants and increased the vigor of fire-dependent plants. Each year, the Conservancy conducts ecologically sensitive controlled burns at Red Rock Prairie to enhance the quality of the vegetation
Red Rock, like many prairies in the state, has a problem with harmful, non-native species. Weedy plants like smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass compete with the prairie's native plants. By using controlled burns, the Conservancy can keep these invasive plants in check.
The Conservancy also restored more than 250 acres of crop fields and degraded pasture to native prairie. Restoration planting was completed in fall 2007 with funding through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s private stewardship grant program. Salix Ecological Resources also made significant in-kind contributions to the project.
The preserve has undergone a total transformation since 1998, with the removal of an old farmsite, trees, powerlines and fences. It is large enough to give visitors a real feel of open prairie.