Prairie Coteau

One of the Last Great Grasslands in the United States

Prairie Coteau Landscape

The Prairie Coteau region of eastern South Dakota and southwest Minnesota is the largest remaining tract of native northern tallgrass prairie in the United States. With approximately 1 million acres of native grasslands and woodlands, this landscape is critical to protect for the survival of native species. See also Prairie Coteau map and fact sheet.

Prairie Coteau Pie Chart

The Prairie Coteau consists primarily of northern tallgrass prairie; however, the structure is predominantly short due to grazing. A 2002 USDA report indicated that out of the 5.1 million acres of the Prairie Coteau, 70% is active or idled cropland and 17% is rangeland or pastureland.

History of the Landscape

The Great Plains were historically shaped by climate, grazing and fire. Encouraged by both lightning and Native Americans, fire has maintained the region’s tallgrass prairie for millennia.

Many wildlife areas or preserves were historically over-utilized or abused pastures. Hunters, naturalists, and managers assumed grazing was harmful to wildlife or biodiversity management.

Today, fire and grazing regimes are essentially non-existent on private lands, except on managed grassland preserves.

The Prairie Coteau Habitat Partnership has worked to promote the benefits of a fire and grazing regime to landowners on the Prairie Coteau. Fire effects monitoring on private lands has proven positive over the years through the Partnership’s prescribed fire program.

Patch burn grazing is an example of a management tool that utilizes fire under appropriate stocking rates to rotate cattle within a pasture. This tool avoids the need for interior fences and mimics “natural” fire-grazing disturbance regimes.

Positive Effects of Fire
  • System rejuvenation and nutrient cycling
  • Native vegetation
  • Forage quality
  • Wildlife nesting habitat and cover
  • Nectar sources
  • Native seed production
  • Landscape mosaic
  • Native grass plantings
  • Weed control
  • Woody plant control
Fire Concerns
  • Wildfire
  • Homes/Urban areas
  • Habitat reduction
  • Tree removal
  • Nesting birds
  • Air quality/smoke
  • Forage loss
Major threats
  • Altered fire regime
  • Inappropriate grazing regime
  • Conversion to agriculture
  • Invasive species encroachment/chemicals
  • Aggregate mining and wind power development
Landscape Level Planning

The NFWF Business Plan for the Prairie Coteau was a multi-partner effort with both South Dakota and Minnesota participants to promote the conservation and restoration of northern tallgrass prairie. The 10-year plan aimed to protect and restore native prairie, promote prairie-based agriculture, develop prairie grass bioenergy markets, return ecological fire to native grasslands, and promote grazing land management.