Monitoring for Minnesota's State Wildlife Action Plan: Prairie Monitoring Pilot

prairie monitoring

Surveying, monitoring, and research play a vital role in the identification and implementation of effective management and policy actions to stabilize and increase Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) populations. Monitoring is also necessary to assess the overall effectiveness of Minnesota's State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), Tomorrow's Habitat for the Wild and Rare. Through monitoring SGCN populations and habitats over time resource managers and the public gain understanding of the factors that affect habitats and populations.


Prairies are amongst the most altered habitats in Minnesota and contain more SGCN than any other habitat identified in Tomorrow's Habitat. Yet, few monitoring programs in Minnesota focus on prairies and much of our baseline survey information on prairies is becoming outdated. Three SWAP monitoring projects are currently underway to measure the status and trends of important indicators of habitat condition and associated animal populations on prairie and surrogate grassland. The projects are prairie change analysis, prairie condition and quality monitoring and grassland bird monitoring.


This monitoring project is working in conjunction with a multi-agency grassland adaptive management collaborative to develop and refine protocols and models for assessment of prairie community response to management. Collaborators include MN DNR Divisions of Ecological Resources, Parks & Trails and Fish & Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and The Nature Conservancy (Grassland Monitoring Team, Standardized Monitoring Protocol).


The partners in the collaborative have overlapping goals, and the following objectives apply across all ownerships and participants:

  • Maintain or increase the percentage cover of native prairie vegetation relative to invasive/exotic vegetation.
  • Minimize the percentage cover of invasive/exotic vegetation, with particular attention to a short list of the most problematic species.
  • Maintain the structural diversity of native grassland ecosystems.

Each of the partners has specific goals that are not addressed within the grassland adaptive management collaborative. An additional objective addressed in the SWAP monitoring efforts is as follows:

  • Maintain high quality native prairie plant and animal communities over time.

Prairie change analysis

The Minnesota County Biological Survey (MCBS) completed surveys of the prairie region of Minnesota during the 2009 field season, but over half (~2900) of the native prairie sites were mapped and surveyed by MCBS over 15 years ago. The current status of many of those sites is at best qualitative and anecdotal. Understanding the type and extent of changes to those sites could provide information on factors affecting Minnesota's prairies and inform prairie management and policy. MN SWAP monitoring staff is using remote sensing to rapidly assess the current status of the approximately 2900 native prairie locations identified by MCBS more than 15 years ago. Polygons of specific changes at each prairie site, and within a 500 m buffer surrounding each site, are mapped and each change polygon is assigned to a different category (development, mining, woody vegetation, agricultural activities) to allow for quantification of the amount of change. Based on the changes, each MCBS mapped prairie polygon will be categorized into one of the following categories: no change, altered, irreversible change, or positive change.

The areas outlined in red on the map to the left represents native prairie as mapped by MCBS in the late 1980s. The light grey around the site shows land cover within the 500 meter buffer. The right map shows the site in 2008 where prairie has been replaced with development. Polygons on the map on the right are classified as 'irreversible change'.

Prairie condition and quality

The second monitoring effort is the development, testing, application, and evaluation of monitoring protocols for prairie condition and quality. Prairie monitoring sites were stratified by geographic location and landscape context based on the size of the site (sites greater than or less than 50 acres) and the relative amount of grassland or open native community within a 500 m buffer of the site (sites where greater than or less than 50% of a 500 m buffer were grassland or other open native community). Variables sampled include vegetation structure, woody cover, presence of non-native plant species, presence of conservative species (indicators of habitat quality), relative cover of native to non-native species, relative cover of grass to forb, percent cover of all non-native plant species, percent cover of all plant species. The sample unit for measuring these variables was a linear belt transect, 25m long by 10cm (0.1 m) wide, divided into 50 contiguous segments (plots) 0.5m by 0.1m (0.05 m2). The monitoring protocols are based on belt-transect protocols developed by USFWS (Grant et al., 2004) and adapted to MN prairie community types.

A total of 38 sites and 694 belt transects were monitored over the 2008 and 2009 field seasons. In 2009, 20 transects were sampled twice by two different field crews to test repeatability. The data from these two years provides a baseline for long-term status and trend monitoring, and is also being analyzed to refine the sampling protocols (e.g. effective sampling density, transect length, range of values).

Grassland bird monitoring

The third monitoring effort is grassland bird monitoring. Staff and contractors completed bird point count surveys at 25 native prairie sites in 2008 and 28 sites in 2009, for a total of 38 sites (15 sites were sampled in both years). At each site a minimum of 7 point counts (with the exception of some very small sites where only two to five points could be assigned) were spaced a no less than 200 m apart.

Over the two field seasons 149 bird species were recorded. Fifty-one of the 149 species were SGCN, of which 15 were state listed. The most commonly recorded SGCN were the Bobolink, followed by the Sedge Wren, and the Grasshopper Sparrow. Data are being analyzed and species detectability will be calculated using Area Occupancy models (MacKenzie et al. 2006).

Adaptive Management Spatial Database (AMSD) development

An additional outcome of the monitoring efforts has been to develop a database that links management activities with monitoring indicator information. The "Adaptive Management Spatial Database" allows users to set management objectives, define, track and report on management activities and track and report on biological outcomes. The primary users initially will be Scientific and Natural Areas (SNA), Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) and State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) staffs. The intent of AMSD is to increase management effectiveness and efficiencies, along with increasing communication to show what we did and how well it worked for future financial and stakeholder support.

The design and development of a spatial database will provide standardization of terminology and facilitate flexible, outcome-based reporting by:

  • allowing the calculation of habitat management acres in various ways,
  • linking habitat management activities to project goals and objectives, and biological responses (monitoring data),
  • tracking the status of habitat management projects and/or practices (start and end dates, completion dates),
  • linking staff activities and habitat management practices and acres to designated funding strings and financial spreadsheets (program budgets, encumbrances),
  • tracking project accomplishments by funding source,
  • integrating with other department applications and data sets

Partners for these prairie monitoring efforts include:

MN DNR Divisions of Ecological Resources, Parks & Trails, and Fish & Wildlife
US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
The Nature Conservancy

Funding provided by:

Federal State Wildlife Grants Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund Reinvest in Minnesota Critical Habitat License Plate Funds

SWAP Monitoring Coordinator:

Daren Carlson


Grant, T. A., E. M. Madden, R. K. Murphy, K. A. Smith, and M. P. Nennean. 2004. Monitoring native prairie vegetation: the belt transect method. Ecological Restoration 22:106-111.

Kinkead, K. 2006. Iowa Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring Program Technical Manual. Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Mackenzie, D.I, J.D. Nichols, J.A Royle, K.H. Pollock, L.L. Bailey, and J.E. Hines. 2006. Occupancy Estimation and Modeling. Academic Press. Burlington, MA.

Manley, P.N., B. Van Horne, J.K. Roth, W.J. Zielinski, M.M. McKenzie, T.J. Weller, F.W. Weckerly, and C. Vojta. 2006. Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring. USDA Forest General Technical Report W0-73.

Additional surveying and monitoring activities within MN DNR's Division of Ecological Resources

MN State Wildlife Grants (SWG)

MN loon monitoring program

Volunteer loon watch survey

Frog and toad survey

Colonial waterbird survey

MN bald eagle survey

Dragonflies and damselflies survey

Rare plant surveys

Rare animal surveys

Rare animal surveys, breeding birds

Rare animal surveys, amphibians and reptiles:

Rare animal surveys, small mammals