Just 1 percent of Minnesota's native prairie remains. Natural resource professionals are used to citing the figure because it's so incontrovertible and compelling, and those who hear it for the first time are often wowed by its stark power. Just imagine if Minnesota had only 1 percent of its original acreage of forest cover, or only 1 percent of its original lakes—there would likely be mass outrage over the wanton destruction of a resource, and "Land of 100 Lakes" would not be much of a license-plate boast.
In the case of prairie, though, its disappearance occurred right under our noses and was endorsed by most Minnesotans as the price of progress. To quote a well-known phrase, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unlike the American Indians who used the prairie landscape largely as it was, the Europeans who settled here in the 1800s saw its transformation to farmland as its highest and best use. Accordingly, moldboard plows cut the prairie to pieces, both literally and figuratively. The plows broke the tough prairie plant root systems and the checkerboard squares of farms marched across the land, leaving only fragments of prairie in their wake.
The farms brought food for an expanding populace and an economic engine for a growing nation—but they also changed the very mechanics of the natural systems that made the prairie work as a filtration and storage network for precipitation and as habitat for wildlife from pollinators to bison. Now, with the perspective that only hindsight often provides, we have an increasingly clear picture of the price we've paid for the plowing of the prairie.
Many prairie wildlife species have struggled to hold on. DNR biologist Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer describes in "Reptile Renaissance" how DNR researchers are studying remaining common five-lined skinks and bullsnakes, whose shrinking habitat has left only scattered and at-risk populations of these native species in the Minnesota River Valley. By finding, measuring, and monitoring populations, scientists are learning how these creatures are using the margins of farm country to keep a toehold in the area, and how land management practices may help them succeed.
Native songbirds too have been affected by the loss of prairie land. Writer Tom Carpenter shows how these "Treasures in the Grass" still can be seen by sharp-eyed birdwatchers in the remnant prairie, restored prairie, and grasslands that harbor these species. But as DNR prairie habitat specialist Greg Hoch points out in "A Bill for Water, Wildlife, and People", three of these treasures—eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, and grasshopper sparrows—have seen population declines of 50 percent or more since 2007.
Fortunately, many Minnesotans are taking steps to protect the native prairie that remains, restore prairie lands that have been disturbed, and create grasslands—the next best thing to true prairie, providing, as Carpenter points out, a surrogate landscape that can sustain some prairie wildlife.
Much of Minnesota's native, unplowed prairie is protected on public lands. Restored prairie is being created in patches from small to large, on both private and public lands; the smell of springtime in the state now often carries the mellow char of prescribed burns. The Department of Natural Resources, through its work on the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, is protecting, restoring, and enhancing grasslands—and their associated wetlands—through nonprofit and public partnerships. A new buffer law has added grass and wildflowers to the land alongside waterways.
It's been a tough financial year for many farmers, so conservation-minded Minnesotans owe thanks to those producers who have plowable land in easements, used conservation grazing on grasslands, or worked to comply with the buffer law.
Consider making your own personal commitment to prairie conservation. Sign up to help out at a prairie restoration event. If you own land that's suitable, consider planting your own patch of prairie. Join conversations about grassland protection and restoration. And the next chance you get, visit one of Minnesota's precious pieces of prairie or grassland and let the open landscape, waving grasses, and bustling wildlife remind you of the prairie's incredible power.
Keith Goetzman, acting editor