In the early spring, the prairie is a barren field, brown and unimpressive. Three-quarters of its biomass is hidden beneath the ground in an intricate network of fibrous roots, fungal mycorrhizae, ant empires, and sleeping skinks. In May, the first green shoots emerge above ground. By August, the prairie is a sea of flowers and grasses, standing nearly five feet tall and buzzing with birds, bees, and wildlife. At first it creeps, then it leaps.
Prairies once covered one-third of North America and one-third of the land that is now called Minnesota. Rivaling the African savanna, this sea of grass stretched from Saskatchewan to Texas and was home to deer, elk, antelope, prairie dogs, and an estimated 30-60 million bison. For 12,000 years, humans have been part of the prairie as well. Though only 1-4% of the original native prairie remains today, helping hands are spreading seeds and pulling weeds. Piece by piece, the prairie is rising.
Over the past 10 years, the Washington Conservation District has helped private landowners to complete more than 700 native planting projects in Washington County, including 72 large-scale prairie restorations. The deep roots of the prairie plants help them to survive extreme heat, cold, drought and even fire. Once restored, these landscapes become oases for red-tailed hawks, fox and coyotes, northern prairie skinks, monarch butterflies, and rusty-patched bumblebees.
Sometimes the prairie grows in leaps. One example is Belwin Conservancy in Afton, which protects 1500 acres of prairie, savanna, and woodlands, including 200 acres along Valley Creek that was set aside by Charlie and Lucy Bell in 1970. The Conservancy has been working to restore prairie on site since the 1970’s and has hosted a seasonal bison herd since 2008. Just up the road in Lake Elmo, the Washington County Parks is currently working to restore and improve 166 acres of prairie and oak savanna within the 2,165 acre Lake Elmo Park Reserve.
Most recently, it was announced that Kelley Land and Cattle Company intends to sell 1,820 acres of land along Manning Ave. in May Township to the Trust for Public Land to become a new Wildlife Management Area and 685 acres to the county to add on to Big Marine Park Reserve. Kelly Farms has been used for low-impact grazing, hunting, and dog training and is easily recognizable to anyone who has driven through northern Washington County due to its wide-open, rolling landscape. The 2500-acre property also contains remnant woods and oak savanna, as well as numerous small lakes and wetlands.
This May and June, there are numerous opportunities to experience the prairie in our local region. On Saturday, May 20, 10am-2pm, Belwin will host its annual Bison Festival at the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields, 15601 Hudson Rd. N, Lakeland, MN. Enjoy eco-arts, food trucks, and music from Imniza Ska Dakota Drum Group and One Voice Mixed Chorus as you welcome the bison back to the prairie. There will be a 5k “Run with the Bison” at 9am (before the bison arrive) and bison will be released at noon. Cost is $10 per car.
On Wednesday June 7th from 4-6pm, you can also celebrate the arrival of a brand-new year-round bison herd at Dakota County’s Spring Lake Park. The park is located along the Mississippi River between Rosemount and Hastings and the celebration will be held at the Fahey Trailhead (Archery Range Area) at 13690 Pine Bend Trail, Rosemount, MN.
If you’re more interested in helping to restore prairie and oak savanna, there are three upcoming planting events in need of volunteers:
- Sat., May 13, 11am-12:30pm at St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park (10191 St. Croix Trail S). Help to re-wild 18 acres of prairie in a former cornfield. Co-sponsored by Pollinator Friendly Alliance and Washington County Parks: www.eventbrite.com/e/613302352847.
- Tue., May 16, 4-6pm at Hasenbank Woods in Woodbury. Help to spread seeds for a 30-acre habitat restoration project. Co-sponsored by South Washington Watershed District and Washington Conservation District: Hasenbank Park Project | Woodbury, MN (woodburymn.gov)
- Wed., May 31, 6-8pm at Pine Point Regional Park (11900 Norell Ave. N.). Help to plant 1000 native plants. Co-sponsored by Pollinator Friendly Alliance, Washington Conservation District, Washington County Parks and Wild Ones – St. Croix, Oak Savanna Chapter: www.eventbrite.com/e/613309674747.
Lastly, you can enjoy “An Evening in the Prairie” with a walking series in Rush City that is co-hosted by the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership and the Chisago SWCD – May 9th, July 11th, and Sept. 26th (5-7 pm). This series will be a great opportunity to learn about restoring prairie on your own land and connect with resources to get started: tinyurl.com/prairiewalk2023.