July–August 2023


Making Connections

Talking all things prairie with Minnesota DNR regional ecologist Megan Benage.

Julie Forster

When Megan Benage was evaluating reconstructed prairie habitat as part of her grad school studies at Purdue University, she repeatedly caught the same pregnant tiger salamander in a live trap. “I think of that salamander often, any time I’m doing a prairie reconstruction,” says Benage, now a Minnesota DNR regional ecologist based in New Ulm. “Did I make enough habitat for her? Did I connect enough of the pieces?”
Connecting the pieces is the name of the game for Benage, whose DNR work includes prairie conservation, restoration/reconstruction, and management projects. She also co-hosts a lively prairie-themed podcast called—what else?—Prairie Pod.  

Broadly speaking, Benage says she’s on a mission to help solve the mysteries of the tallgrass prairie, land we continue to lose in Minnesota. Determining exactly how prairie organisms are connected is critical to prairie health—and a puzzle she’ll be working on for a lifetime.

Q | What projects will you be working on in the upcoming field season? Most of my focus as an ecologist is to make sure that we get the prairie as healthy as possible. One specific example is Hole-In-Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Lincoln County, where there are several prairie reconstructions connected to remnant prairie. I will be out there with the wildlife manager assessing the site and evaluating how the pieces fit together. 

Q | Is this the same location where the Dakota skipper butterfly was released in 2021? Yes. The DNR is working with lots of partners to help recover and restore populations of the Dakota skipper, a federally threatened species. The Dakota skipper was last known to exist at Hole-In-Mountain in the 2000s and hasn’t been seen there since the releases in 2021. We hope that the efforts to restore the habitat there will one day again support a healthy population of Dakota skippers.

Q | Tell me about a particularly successful Minnesota prairie reconstruction. It takes so long for a prairie reconstruction to mature that your work is never done. We can’t ever say, “This is great; we’re done.” It’s a lifelong commitment to the prairie. But the Eden Wildlife Management Area in Pipestone County turned out well. The reason why I say that one is good is because the majority of what we planted grew. We need to give most of the credit to nature. Sometimes a site has everything it needs to be restored. The structure is right, the connections in the soil are still there, and the diversity is good, and it sort of resembles what we see in a remnant prairie. That’s kind of the bar—how are we stacking up to a remnant prairie? But it’s not really a fair bar because we know we might never be able to stack up to a remnant prairie. That’s why it’s so important to conserve what you have. 

Q | How many acres of native, or remnant, prairie are left in Minnesota?  We used to have 18 million acres and now we have 250,000, or 1 percent.

Q | That’s sad. Yes, but also happy because even though that is such a small fraction of the whole, we still have prairie left. That is huge when it comes to figuring out how to rebuild connections because that is a reference point. We have native prairie that remains. That’s something to celebrate.

Q | What does “figuring out how to rebuild connections” mean in your work? In a teaspoon of soil there are a billion different organisms. We don’t know the genome, for example, of every prairie plant and animal. And we don’t always know what all of those species on the prairie are doing—or even what all of those species are. If you don’t know what their role in the prairie is, you don’t know how they’re connected to each other. You don’t know how to put the thing together again. It’s like doing a puzzle, but you are missing puzzle pieces, and while you have the picture on the front of the puzzle—remnant prairie—you don’t know where everything is supposed to go and how it’s supposed to fit. 

Q | Have you been able to rebuild a prairie remnant to the way it was before European settlement? No, I don’t think we can say that we’ve been able to do that, but we have been able to meet our goals and provide some critical connections as well as wildlife food and cover. Just because something isn’t perfect or what it once was doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. We know we’re losing grassland species at a fast rate. We also know that prairie restorations can provide vital habitat for some of these species. If we can provide benefits even if we don’t get them all, that’s a win.