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There's an effort underway in western Minnesota to preserve the Midwest's last remaining acres of northern tallgrass prairie. Once, the grasslands spanned close to 25 million acres through parts of Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Iowa. More than 90 percent of the original tallgrass prairie was plowed under; what remains today are only patches of the early grasslands. Under a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife program, the hope is to keep those last few areas intact for years to come.
ON THIS LATE AUTUMN AFTERNOON, the hilly grassland of the Big Stone Wildlife Refuge is a blend of red, gold, and brown. The once lush green bushes and plants have dried and withered. The northern tallgrass has turned a golden wheat color.
Ron Cole: This grass must be six feet tall. You know, you hear historical accounts of men on horseback and men standing up in the stirrups just to see over the top of the grass.As manager of the Big Stone Refuge, Ron Cole often walks through this grassland.
Cole: If we could take a trip back in time and we would be standing here back in the 1800s, perhaps we would see miles of bison, thousands and thousands of waterfowl, prairie chicken, numerous ground-nesting birds.Many of the animals and plants that thrived in this northern grassland near Ortonville aren't here anymore, but DNR Biologist Peter Beussler says the prairie has not disappeared.
Beussler: We have the wild onion here - a nice onion flavor in the bulb that's at the base. We have purple clover, one of the blazing stars, you could probably count 30 or 40 different species just within a six-foot radius of us here.Wildlife officials believe there could be close to 80,000 acres of northern tallgrass prairie left. What still exists is mostly on private land in small tracts cut up by farming and development. To preserve the remaining prairie, officials must rely on the interest of people like Barry Hennan, a farmer who has 60 acres of prairie on his farmstead near Appleton.
Hennan: This is a great hunting area. My boy got his first twelve-point buck up on the line here.Close to one-fifth of Hennan's land is prairie. He's owned the property since 1977 and says the grassland acres have remained relatively untouched because the rocky, steep hills are too difficult to plow. At one point in time, they had been used as cow pasture, but Hennan says when he saw the pheasants and deer on the land he couldn't imagine doing anything but leave the prairie alone.
Hennan: I knew we had a spot here you can't create. I watched this land every year. We hunt it and I felt like if there was any way we can preserve some of this ... I just turned 50, and 20 years from now I would like this to be saved. And if my boys happen to choose other occupations, which could very well happen, I would like to think if we're not here someday, that this will always be here.Hennan's land is a good candidate for preservation, but there's a limit to how much of the grassland prairie can be restored. The reason, says refuge manager Ron Cole, has to do with how the land has been used.
Cole: What's in corn today, can we turn that back to native prairie? No we can't. Can we do some reconstruction on some areas that are degraded in some way? Yes, and maybe inject some of the native species back into the ecosystem.Converting some of the farmland in western Minnesota back into grassland and prairie may mean more than reverting land to it's original state. In some places, it could result in a new kind of farming. Already researchers have explored using prairie plants such as echinacea for medicinal purposes. The Department of Agriculture has tested using wild-prairie sunflower seeds to improve yields.
Never again will there be endless prairie on the horizon, but a new Department of Fish and Wildlife program should guarantee a few stretches of northern tallgrass will remain. Officials plan to buy some of the remaining prairie, other areas will stay in private hands but with an understanding they will be set aside for preservation.
Farmer Barry Hennan says he is still working out the details of his participation in this project. He and his neighbors have worked quietly on prairie preservation for years. But he thinks an official project is something other farmers in the area will jump on.
Hennan: To leave this land in the control of a wetlands office or a prairie lands office like what's in Ortonville, I'm not sure they wouldn't leap on it. Because it's a place they could bring their kids back to and say, "Hey, you know, this is where my Dad farmed."Funding for the Northern Tallgrass Preservation program will be approved sometime next year. In the meantime, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are meeting with landowners to drum up interest in prairie preservation.