A tractor with a seed harvester on a Minnesota prairie.
Prairie restoration (reconstruction) is the rebuilding of prairies by planting prairie seeds in areas changed to another land use. The science of prairie restoration is complicated and has been adapting and evolving over the past 100 years as more is learned about prairie's complexity. Prairie restoration takes time and patience. For example, you would not expect to plant a tree seedling and have an old-growth forest the next year; the same is true for prairie restorations. Prairie restoration:
- Buffers and creates connections between isolated native prairie remnants, thereby making the larger prairie landscape more resilient to changing environmental conditions including climate change, pesticides, and invasive species
- Sequestering carbon
- Promotes water infiltration and storage (recharges groundwater, flood control, reduces erosion and nutrient runoff)
- Provides places for people to explore and learn about prairies
- Provides habitat for a variety of animals, from deer to damselflies
- Connects people—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—with prairie's past, present, and future
A healthy, functioning prairie consists of thousands of different organisms: plants, insects, birds, mammals, bacteria, and fungi to name a few. This complexity creates challenges to reconstruct, restore, and connect prairie to the larger prairie landscape. This is especially true when you consider prairie organisms rely on complex interactions of nutrients, moisture, and energy that become the food, water, and shelter they need to survive. Further complicating matters is changing species abundance in response to disturbances such as fire, grazing, and climate extremes such as drought or flooding. As a result, a particular patch of prairie can look very different from year to year. The prairie landscape is an intricate shifting mosaic and as such, prairie restoration is a combination of science and art working to connect this incredible landscape.
Historically, the standard practice for reconstruction was to plant a high percentage of grasses to ensure faster establishment and provide dense nesting cover for wildlife. This approach led to grasslands that lack the function and structure of native prairie remnants and fail to meet the needs of a larger variety of prairie wildlife. Today, restoration practices have shifted to include:
- Goals that target a wider variety of plant species and animal communities
- Evaluating site conditions and past land use
- Determining appropriate seed mixes, including cost and seed source
- Site preparation, planting method, and timing
- Planning post-planting management, monitoring and evaluation
Native gardens and landscaping have a role in rebuilding prairies too, though not typically on the scale of a large prairie restoration. A "pocket prairie" in your yard can provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife while you get natural beauty in a cost-effective alternative to traditional landscaping.
Every piece of land in the prairie landscape, whether native or restored, small or large, reflects the decisions made on it up until this moment in time. The choices made on the land now determine the future of the prairie landscape.
A Minnesota prairie restoration with a variety of blooming native wildlflowers.
Find out more:
In addition, learn about Minnesota DNR's prairie restoration work: