Northern tallgrass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth. In the mid-1850s, prairie covered one-third of Minnesota. Today, less than 2% of the original prairie remains.
The 8,000-acre prairie complex of Buffalo River State Park, Bluestem Prairie and the Moorhead State University Regional Science Center is one of the largest remnant prairies in Minnesota. Although once grazed by homesteaders' livestock, it contains over 25 rare plant and animal species.
Still, this prairie complex is under threat. Invasive species displace native plants. Without periodic fires and grazing by bison, trees and shrubs encroach on the native prairie.
Native prairie plants provide a home to a number of animals.
Each year resource specialists work "behind the scenery" to conserve the landscape at Buffalo River State Park. Walk along the roads and trails to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the prairie. Visit the locations on the map to see this work in progress. Map
Without regular fire, trees and brush encroach into the prairie, shading the native prairie plants and preventing them from flourishing. Shearing equipment and chainsaws are used to reduce brush and remove trees.
Behind the contact station, you may see stumps and cut stems sticking up from the prairie. Removal of brush allows more sunlight to penetrate the soil, so plants can grow.
Without periodic fire or grazing from bison, brush encroaches into the prairie. White Lady's Slippers grow in a wet prairie, where there is enough sunlight to penetrate the soil.
Looking east from the contact station, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that this area was mined for gravel to build roads and the railroad berm.
Parts of this area were restored to tallgrass prairie in 1996. The mining pit was filled in, levelled and the soil was reseeded using seeds from nearby areas of the park. There are 172 acres of restored prairie in Buffalo River State Park.
State park workers harvest prairie flower seeds by hand.
European buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, is an invasive shrub that out-competes native plants for nutrients, light and moisture. State park staff cut mature shrubs along the river to prevent the production of new seeds. Herbicide is then applied to cut stumps.
Crews cut hundreds of acres of European buckthorn in state parks annually.
Before European settlement, fires moved regularly through vast expanses of Minnesota prairie. Today, resource specialists work to replicate fire in smaller patches.
Fire stimulates the growth of prairie plants. Burning hastens the release of nutrients back into the ground and blackened soils absorb heat from the sun. Germinating seeds and deep roots send shoots above ground.
When fire is prescribed to keep a prairie healthy, trained staff set up a controlled burn.
Leafy spurge, Euphorbia esula, is an invasive plant threatening Buffalo River State Parks' prairies. It can shoot its seeds up to 20 feet, so herbicides and spurge beetles are used to control its spread.
Tank sprayers mounted on ATVs travel from one pocket of leafy spurge to another, making herbicide application more efficient.