People in the crowd gather tight and whisper excitedly. Children stand on tiptoes, while adults crane their necks. There’s a communal inhale and then BOOM! The gates open and the bison race out of the trailer and into the prairie. When Charlie and Lucy Bell set aside 200 acres of land along Valley Creek in Afton back in 1970, did they realize that their actions would eventually allow for the return of bison to the St. Croix Valley?
Though the history of development along the St. Croix River centers on logging, most of the lower St. Croix Valley was originally covered in prairie and oak savanna. Prior to European settlement, in fact, there were millions of acres of prairie in the U.S.. Today, less than 0.1% of that remains, making tallgrass prairie the most endangered ecosystem in the world. By 1970, most of the land in Washington County had been logged, plowed under for farming or leveled for development. Over the past 50 years, however, we’ve restored natural landscapes in many parts of the county and the 200 acres of land that the Bells set aside to create the Belwin Conservancy has now grown into a 1,364 acre preserve that includes oak savanna and woodlands, tallgrass prairie, wetlands and fens. By 2008, folks at Belwin knew it was time to bring back the bison.
Habitat restoration isn’t just happening on public lands, however. Across Washington County, private landowners are transforming old farm fields and large lawns into vibrant prairies that attract wildlife and protect water resources. This year, for the first time, the Washington Conservation District has grant funds available to help landowners living near the St. Croix River convert large areas of turf to prairie, making it easier than ever for people to go native.
In 2008, Belwin Conservancy introduced bison to their prairie for the first time. The bison, which spend their winters at NorthStar Bison in Rice Lake, WI, are released into the prairie every year at the beginning of the summer and then rounded up again in the late fall. This year’s Bison Release will happen on Saturday, June 15 at noon. Starting at 11am, there will be family friendly activities, including an art project led by Phipps Center for the Arts in which children and adults can create seed balls out of prairie seed, soil, clay and dried bison dung. In addition, Afton’s Sail Away Café will be selling refreshments and NorthStar Bison will be selling packaged bison meat.
Later the next week, on Thursday, June 20, Belwin Conservancy and the Washington Conservation District will offer a free workshop for people interested in learning more about planting and maintaining a prairie. During this workshop, landscape restoration staff from Belwin will share their experience with restoring and managing prairie on the Conservancy’s land, while Conservation District staff will talk about the 2013-14 “Turf to Prairie” grants available, as well as other resources to help private landowners in Washington County with prairies and other conservation projects. The workshop will be held at the main education building off of Stagecoach Trail and will include a prairie hike as well.
Belwin Bison Release: Saturday, June 15 at noon. Free. Activities begin at 11am. Park at the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields, 15601 Hudson Rd., West Lakeland. More information at www.belwin.org. Go to www.belwin.org/bison for information on the history of bison at Belwin.
Prairie Workshop: Thursday, June 20, 6:30-8pm. Free. Park at the education center, 1553 Stagecoach Trail S., Afton. Register at http://tinyurl.com/Prairie2013. For more information about the Conservation District’s prairie grants contact Andy Schilling at 651-275-1136 ex. 43 or firstname.lastname@example.org.