While camping near this prairie in 1804, the Corps of Discovery recorded a snapshot of what this region was like before European settlers arrived.
Captain William Clark wrote in his journal: “From the top of this mound, we beheld a most beautiful landscape. Numerous herds of buffalo were seen feeding in various directions. The plain to the north, northwest and northeast extends without interruption as far as can be seen.”
Native Americans believed this mound, known as Spirit Mound, was inhabited by “little devils” armed with arrows. The steep and rocky land here protected patches of land from the plow and preserved pieces of original prairie. Vermillion Prairie is a remnant of this once great panorama.
This prairie — located on the bluffs that overlook the Vermillion River — helps preserve a region rich in natural history.
Vermillion Prairie once was part of rich and diverse grassland complex. Although much land in the area has been converted for agriculture, plant diversity continues to thrive on this 22-acre preserve.
At the base of the bluff, big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass form dense stands. On its knobs, prairie violet, fringed puccoon and silky aster thrive. On top, look for the leadplant or prairie rose. The prairie also supports a few mulberry trees and a wild plum thicket, which provide fruits and shelter for wildlife. Compass plant also is very abundant.
Much wildlife nests and feeds on this small preserve. Fledgling meadowlarks and mourning doves, which are born and nurtured on this prairie, learn to fly here in the ever-present wind. The white-footed mouse and white-tailed deer forage while raccoons, badgers, red fox and kestrels hunt amid the dense prairie cover.
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
Through its work with many partners, The Nature Conservancy nurtures conservation throughout the state. An important part of this dialogue involves educating landowners, farmers and concerned citizens about the ways they can protect and preserve South Dakota’s last great places.
Vermillion Prairie was a rare opportunity for the Conservancy to reach a younger audience with its conservation messages. Its great location with easy access made it ideal for outdoor classroom use. The diversity in plant and animal life here provides fascinating material for elementary, secondary and college students.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
This prairie’s hilly contours may have protected it from the plow, as European settlers primarily used it for grazing, which was the dominant use of this small parcel of land when the Conservancy acquired the preserve in 1976. At the time, a master management plan was developed for the entire preserve. The plan called for strategic use of conservation tools, such as controlled fires. The drainage area, for example, had a heavy layer of mulch that needed to be removed before native vegetation could thrive. In other places, harmful, non-native had taken a foothold and needed to be removed.
Today, the preserve is open to research and is being managed to provide a safe haven for native invertebrates, mammals and vegetation.