This region is famous for its greater prairie chickens. A 20-foot-tall statue of one stands along Highway 52 in the town of Rothsay. You can see the real-life bird at Richard M. & Mathilde Rice Elliott Prairie, which is part of a network of preserves where this chicken-sized bird continues to live.
The Conservancy dubbed greater prairie chicken one of the "Unlucky 13" grassland birds because its numbers have dwindled. Best known for their spectacular courtship and mating rituals, it 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 Western Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, combine to create 817 acres of habitat for this bird.
From Barnesville, go south four miles on Highway 52 to County Road 188. Turn east and go one mile to the southwest corner of the preserve. Continue one-half a mile to a pull-off on the south side of the road to park.
Richard M. & Mathilde Rice Elliott SNA lies in what once was the bottom of the largest freshwater lake in the world — Glacial Lake Agassiz. As glaciers receded, the lake disappeared, leaving behind a rich soil that eventually supported extensive prairies. Today, a mesic prairie covers nearly 70 percent of the natural area.
Because this preserve never was plowed, it supports a tallgrass prairie with few harmful, non-native plants, a natural community that is rare in Minnesota and throughout the United States.
Two plants of special concern — the northern gentian, marked by inch long blue flowers, and the small white lady's slipper — call this preserve home.
Other rare birds join the greater prairie chicken to live at Richard M. & Mathilde Rice Elliott SNA. The state-threatened Wilson's phalarope migrates more than 3,000 miles — a 54-hour nonstop flight — from Argentina to Minnesota to spends its summer. Phalaropes are unusual among birds because the role of the sexes if reversed. Phalarope females are larger and colored more brightly than males. They often mate with more than one male, have more than one nest and, after egg-laying, they leave their families to the sole care of the males.
The long, slightly curved pink and black-tipped bill of the marbled godwit, a species of concern for the state, makes it easy to spot. This 16-inch-tall bird also has long legs and a long neck, but it’s the distinctive bill that sets it apart.
The imperiled regal fritillary, one of the most striking butterflies found on prairies, also lives here. This brilliant orange-and-black butterfly is listed as species of special concern in Minnesota. It only is found in tallgrass prairies.
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
This preserve consists of diverse, unplowed prairie habitat. Richard M. & Mathilde Rice Elliott SNA has a history of haying, a common practice that maintains excellent plant diversity. This site is located within the Agassiz Beach Ridges landscape, a high priority area for conservation within the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
Conservancy stewardship staff manage this preserve using controlled fire and occasional, patchy mowing. The preserve is broken into four fire units. No more than one of these units is burned at any time, allowing for ample nesting cover and refugia for wildlife. The fire is a beneficial management tool that reduces the dominance of brush and enhances the vigor of many native prairie plant species.