When European settlers first came to Minnesota in the mid-1800s, much of the western and southwestern parts of the state were blanketed with a vast “sea of grass,” part of an immense grassland that stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Today most of those grasslands are gone, having been plowed under or paved over long ago. What remains is threatened by invasive species, fire suppression, energy development and conversion to other land uses.
The Nature Conservancy has launched the Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project to protect the remaining 90,000 acres of native prairie and savanna in the state and restore thousands of acres of degraded prairie and prairie/wetland habitat. The project will increase capacity for grassland restoration and test innovative economic models for sustainable long-term prairie management that also benefit local communities.
The project is a collaborative effort that includes the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society and The Nature Conservancy.
Goals for First Five Years of the Project
Initiated with funding from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund in 2010, the project encompasses five core prairie landscapes in western and southwestern Minnesota and in the next five years seeks to:
• Protect 4,000 acres of existing and restorable grassland, prairie pothole complex, and/or savanna;
• Restore 1,000 acres of converted grasslands and wetlands to diverse, local-ecotype grassland/wetland complexes; and
• Enhance 30,000 acres of grassland/wetland complex on public lands to increase native species diversity and improve critical wildlife habitat. Management techniques will include prescribed fire, conservation grazing and/or haying, removal of woody vegetation, and mechanical and chemical control of invasive species.
Benefits to Local Communities
Grasslands acquired through the Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project will be open to the public for hunting, fishing, hiking and other types of outdoor recreation.
The Conservancy will pay property taxes on the land it acquires, and the project will support local opportunities to develop grass-based businesses including grazing, haying, biofuels and native seed production.
Project Highlights: October 2010 to December 2011
New Land Acquisition
In November 2011, the Prairie Recovery Project purchased a 320-acre parcel of land adjacent to the Minnesota DNR’s Mentor Prairie Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The property, named the Mentor Prairie Preserve, is a mix of native prairie habitats and Conservation Reserve Program lands, and contains a population of federally-threatened western prairie fringed orchid. In addition to protecting the orchids, purchase of the property will help the DNR implement prescribed fire on the WMA.
Woody encroachment is of great conservation concern in Minnesota prairies. Undesirable trees and shrubs cannot always be controlled through fire management alone, needing either mechanical or chemical treatments to help suppress woody growth. The Prairie Recovery Project provided funding to remove aspen trees and shrubs on approximately 125 acres of the unique and rare sand dune/oak barrens habitat found at the 7,415-acre Skull Lake Wildlife Management Area.
Invasive Species Control
In 2011, the Prairie Recovery Project funded two full-time seasonal positions and provided the necessary equipment to assist public agencies in their fight against invasive plant species. The establishment and spread of invasive species is one of the biggest threats to the integrity of prairie habitat and controlling them can consume a large amount of time and management funds.
Prairie systems evolved under a combination of wildfire followed by intense grazing from large mammals (bison and elk), and many species continue to depend on both forces being present in the landscape. More than 3.5 miles of fencing was installed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Brenner Lake Waterfowl Production Area in Kandiyohi County giving land managers the option of using cattle grazing as an additional management tool.
Questions about the Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project should be directed to Neal Feeken via email.