Stories in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota

2021 Year in Review: Conservation Highlights in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota

Native grasses and flowering plants in a golden prairie.
Sea of grass Many native grasses and flowering plants can be found at Davis Ranch, which provide important habitat for pollinators and grassland birds. © Richard Hamilton Smith

Thanks for a Great Year of Conservation

During this defining period for our planet, action for nature has never been more important. Thank you for joining us as we tackle the biggest challenges of our time. 

Explore some of the wonderful projects, science and collaborations your support is making possible!

Thanks from Ann Chapter Director for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, Ann Mulholland shares her gratitude.

Tatanka Return to Rosebud Tribe

American bison bull at Cross Ranch Preserve.
Bison Tatanka or American bison were once hunted to near extinction, leaving a disruptive legacy on the landscape and the people who relied on the animal for food, shelter, clothing and tools. © Richard Hamilton Smith

For the Lakota people living on the Rosebud reservation, their relationship with bison runs deep. It is a sacred bond, as the tatanka (a.k.a. bison or buffalo) have provided food, clothing, shelter and tools to the Lakota for millennia. This way of living was brought to a screeching halt when bison were hunted to near extinction by European and American settlers. To support Native-led efforts and begin repairing what’s been broken, TNC has transferred more than 55 bison from our Cross Ranch preserve to the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), an arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. As part of the Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range, these animals will provide cultural opportunities, create economic opportunity, combat climate change, regenerate the health of the prairie and strengthen food sovereignty within the Native nation.

Investing in Foodscapes

Aerial photo of a field planted with cover crops.
Regenerative Agriculture We’re working with farmers and their advisors to increase the adoption of soil health practices for a healthier climate and planet. © Stan Tekiela

With so much of our former grassland in agricultural production, investing in nature-based solutions for farms and ranches can provide big benefits to producers and consumers. Practices like cover cropping, reduced tillage and smart nutrient management could sequester millions of tons of carbon in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. That’s why we’re working with farmers and their advisors to increase the adoption rate of these practices in a way that minimizes risk. This year, we’ve worked with agricultural service providers in Minnesota to help dozens of farmers plant cover crops on more than 4,500 acres, enrolled 1,500 new acres in our Ecosystem Services Market Consortium pilot program and launched a nutrient certification program for businesses that work with farmers in Minnesota.

Sustainable Grazing Study

A herd of cattle being herded by people on horseback.
Cattle Grazing TNC regularly leases grassland acres to neighboring ranchers for grazing, as the disturbance from cattle on the landscape helps keep prairies healthy. © Richard Hamilton Smith
People on horseback ride through a field in Minnesota.
Grazing Lands Rickford Ranch fall roundup of cattle from The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie near Glyndon, Minnesota. © Richard Hamilton Smith

Grazing has the largest footprint of any agricultural activity, making it imperative that producers can track and manage these lands for clean water, climate and biodiversity benefits, social and economic outcomes. That’s why a research team led by The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund recently published a study detailing ‘sustainability indicators’ to create a common set of criteria for assessing the sustainability of U.S. ranches. This set includes ecological, social and economic indicators, which researchers hope will lead to a better and more holistic understanding of ranch-level sustainability across our nation’s some 770 million acres of rangelands.

Forest Assisted Migration Project

A stream running through rock lined banks and forest.
Saving the Northwoods Assisted migration, or the movement of species with a little help from people, is one strategy that ecologists and land managers are looking to as a way of maintaining diversity and resilience in natural areas most vulnerable to climate change. © Fauna Creative

In northeastern Minnesota, partners in the Forest Assisted Migration Project have been hard at work to reforest the Northwoods with climate-smart tree species that will survive and thrive in a changing climate. The project goals include collecting seeds from species predicted to adapt well, forming a collaborative of tree nurseries to meet to the increasing demand for seedlings and establishing partnerships and purchasing agreements — including one recently signed by TNC to purchase 60,000 climate-smart seedlings for 2022 planting.

Breathing (and Breeding) Room for Blanding’s Turtles

A sign on a roadside with a turtle icon and the words 'turtle crossing'.
Turtle Crossing A crossing sign warns motorists to be on the lookout for turtles making their way across Highway 84. © Derek Montgomery
A closeup of a Blanding's turtle in a hand.
Blanding's Turtle TNC's Weaver Dunes SNA near Kellogg, Minnesota provides important habitat for Blanding's turtles. © Derek Montgomery

In southeastern Minnesota, near our Weaver Dunes preserve, lives a breeding population of Blanding’s turtles. A state-threatened species in Minnesota and endangered in South Dakota, Blanding’s turtles rely on upland, sandy prairies for breeding habitat. For this population, the closest suitable nesting habitat sits on the opposite side of a busy road from the shallow lakes and wetlands that female turtles emerge from each year. To make the journey a little safer, we acquired and are now restoring a former farm field that will provide additional and safer nesting habitat.

Borrowing From Beavers

A human-built artificial beaver dam in a pond surrounded by grassland.
Busy As Beavers By building artificial structures that mimic the effect of beavers, conservation practitioners are working to restore degraded prairie streams in South Dakota. © Joe Dickie

Taking a page from nature’s engineers, our western South Dakota conservation team has been busy as beavers to restore degraded prairie headwater streams. They installed 57 beaver dam analog structures on private lands this year, which are designed to mimic the effect of beavers by slowing down and holding back water on the landscape. These structures will also help improve stream health as well as riparian and rangeland health, benefitting wildlife, ranchers and everyone downstream.

Seeds of Resilience Tool Takes Off

Prairie DNA (1:16) Restoration practitioners play an important role in ensuring our prairies will last into the future. That's why The Nature Conservancy created a new tool to help practitioners diversify their seed sources.

We know that species diversity is critical to successful restoration work in our grasslands. That’s true whether on the prairie, in the forest or along our coasts. But the foundation for species diversity is the thing we’re not talking about enough: genetic diversity. That’s why our science team is working to ensure genetic diversity in grassland restorations through their Seeds of Resilience Tool, working with partners across landscapes to build resilience in these critically important ecosystems. Since launching last year, we’ve mapped 331,148 populations of plant species and restored 600 acres of prairie across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Soil Health Gets a Boost

A closeup of a hand holding a fist full of soil next to a shovel full of soil.
Soil Health Investing in soil health can pay off in big ways, including cleaner water, increased carbon storage, reduced flooding and improved yields. © Ryan Stoppera

In Minnesota, where adoption of cover cropping and wetland restoration is slow, TNC advocates have been celebrating a big win at the Legislature! Thanks to the 163 advocacy supporters who spoke up to their lawmakers about the need for soil health funding, $4 million was recently allocated from the Clean Water Fund to accelerate the adoption of cover crops on Minnesota farms. This investment will pay off in the form of cleaner water, improved farm yields and carbon storage.

Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Formed

The misty, forested shore of Lake Superior.
Climate Adaptation The new Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center will have a tremendous impact on the Great Lakes region. © Derek Montgomery

The Department of the Interior recently announced the establishment of a new Climate Adaptation Science Center which will be hosted at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said, “The Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center will better position us to mitigate climate impacts while focusing needed attention to Tribal and state resources that are particularly vulnerable to climate change.” And because climate change is expected to disproportionately impact Indigenous people and communities of color, TNC appreciates the USGS’ commitment to include Tribal, rural and urban areas in its work.

Nature and Climate Solutions for Minnesota

Nature's Climate Solutions (1:42) Nature-based solutions can provide up to 30% of the solutions needed to meet our climate goals.

Early in 2021, we dropped Nature and Climate Solutions for Minnesota, a report detailing the need for and benefits of investments in nature. Cover crops, reforestation and rain gardens, are all examples of nature-based solutions that can help us mitigate and adapt to our changing climate. We also launched Trees.Water.Soil., a storytelling campaign exploring the many nature-based solutions available in Minnesota and the people who are already putting them to work.

South Dakota Grassland Easements

Low, rolling hills of grassland at Bluebell Ranch.
Grasslands Protected grasslands provide habitat for many important species. © Richard Hamilton Smith
A western meadowlark with ruffled, windblown feathers perched on a post.
Meadowlark Birds like western meadowlarks depend on protected grassland habitat in places like South Dakota. © Sidra Monreal/TNC Photo Contest 2019

In South Dakota, we’ve recently expanded the capacity of our grassland conservation easement program. Welcoming McKenna Hammons and Megan Zopfi to the team this year, we’re doubling down on our efforts to support the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in protecting more of the state's best remaining grassland habitat. Working with more than 200 private landowners across South Dakota in 2021, we’re proud to be increasing grassland habitat for important species like meadowlarks, marbled godwits, milkweed and more!

Conservation By the Numbers

  • 1.3 Mil

    How many trees we planted in northeastern Minnesota in 2021.

  • 297

    Notes sent to lawmakers this year urging climate action.

  • $4 Mil

    Funding designated for cover crops, wetlands and more in MN.

  • 33,148

    Native plant populations mapped through Seeds of Resilience.

Your Support Makes Conservation Possible

Your ongoing support is critical to our success every year. Each acre we protect, every stream we restore and every tree we plant is only possible because of supporters like you. Help us conserve even more of our prairies, wetlands, lakes and rivers with a gift today in support of the nature you love in MinnesotaNorth Dakota or South Dakota

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