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Minnesota

Western Prairie Scientific Natural Area

Western Prairie lies in what once was the bottom of the ancient glacial Lake Agassiz.


Western Prairie Scientific and Natural Area is home to a population of greater prairie chickens, a bird the Conservancy is committed to helping. Best known for their spectacular courtship and mating rituals, this chicken-sized bird once numbered in the millions. Its populations in many parts of the United States are imperiled. Minnesota’s populations of this bird, however, are rebounding.

This preserve, along with the nearby Richard M. & Mathilde Rice Elliot Scientific and Natural Area, combine to create 817 acres of habitat for this bird.

Western Prairie lies in what once was the bottom of the ancient glacial Lake Agassiz, which was the largest freshwater lake in the world. As glaciers receded, the lake disappeared, leaving behind an organically rich alkaline soil that eventually supported extensive prairies. Today, sedge meadows cover nearly 50 percent of the natural area, with wet and mesic prairie communities covering the rest.

Location
From Lawndale, go west three miles on County Road 30. Travel south on County Road 167 for two miles to the northwest corner of the preserve. The preserve is posted with Scientific and Natural Areas signs. To park, proceed a half-mile south to a pull-in on your left by the preserve sign.

Size
320 acres

Plants
The prickly leaves of the bushy glasswort share this land with two plants of special concern — the northern gentian, marked by inchlong blue flowers, and the small white lady's slipper. All three are rare and unusual plants.

Because this land includes a sedge meadow community, a mesic prairie and a wet prairie, native plants found in each of these habitats can be found. The sedge meadow, for example, includes reedgrass, the small blue flowers of Kalm's lobelia and the milky red stems of Indian hemp, while the wet prairie includes rush aster and silverweed.

Animals
Western Prairie is part of a network of preserves where the greater prairie chicken continues to live. It was dubbed one of the “Unlucky 13” grassland birds by the Conservancy because its numbers have dwindled. These birds, however, are experiencing a resurgence: Their mating ritual can be heard again. During April and May, a male inflates his colorful air sacs, stamps his feet and shakes his tail feathers while calling for a mate in a low-pitched tone. This behavior is called “booming.”

One bird living here that still is state threatened is the webbed-toed Wilson's phalaropes. With these special toes, this bird spins on the water surface, creating tiny whirlpools that stir up their aquatic prey for easy pickings.

The sharp-tailed sparrow and marbled godwit, species of concern for the state, also live here. Mammals include the masked shrew, pigmy shrew and shorttail weasel.

Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
The Conservancy acquired Western Prairie because it supports a remnant population of greater prairie chickens, a grassland bird that the Conservancy is working with its partners to help. Nearby state-owned wildlife management areas — Altherton and Rothsay — provide additional habitat for this rare bird.

This natural area also features a tallgrass prairie with few exotic plants, a natural community that is rare in Minnesota and throughout the United States.

What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
Conservancy stewards use periodic controlled fire to maintain this site as an open grassland. Woody species can become dominant without the presence of these burns.

Occasional mowing of sweet clover prevents this introduced legume from setting seed and reduces its presence over time.

Numerous private landowners in the immediate area have enrolled their wetland areas in the federal Wetland Reserve Program, assuring their protection for future generations of waterfowl and other wetland and grassland dependant species.

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