More work preserving prairie
SUNBURG -- Craig Lee loves nothing better than searching for the "top ten," but he's not talking about late-night television or the movies. Lee, an accomplished botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Litchfield, looks for rare and en...
SUNBURG -- Craig Lee loves nothing better than searching for the "top ten," but he's not talking about late-night television or the movies.
Lee, an accomplished botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Litchfield, looks for rare and endangered prairie plants that are found only on native prairie. They are plants that have specific niches in the prairie environment. It requires a succession of plants over long periods of time to create the prairie where these plants can be found as part of the mosaic.
"This is amazing,'' said Lee, as he described the prairie on conservation land owned by Robin Freese and Steve Harms.
Lee gives a prairie a high ranking if he can identify at least 10 of these plants, hence the "top 10'' designation. Here, he had only to step slowly up the side of a hill before he had ticked off a much longer list. His finds at the toes of his boots came with names like downy gentian, silky aster, wild licorice and rattlesnake root.
The property owned by Freese and Harms is located adjacent to 580 acres of protected wetlands and restored prairie that is part of the Brenner Lake and Randall Waterfowl Production Areas northeast of Sunburg. The couple's native prairie has never seen a plow.
Harms said that he and his wife used to find their outdoor get-a-ways by camping along Minnesota's North Shore. Now, they devote their spare hours to restoring the prairie on this property that was once part of the Freese family farm, and is now their home.
Lee said it was still possible to find remote corners of Minnesota where native plant populations were largely free of invasive species when he began his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Today, it is no longer possible to find places that are truly free of invasive species, he said.
It helps explain why Lee and others with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Litchfield -- along with 18 volunteers in the Minnesota Master Naturalist program from across southern Minnesota -- spent three days last week on the property and adjacent WPA.
They devoted part of each day to cutting down invasive, woody plants like cedar, buckthorn and prickly ash to protect the native prairie from their encroachment.
And, they set aside part of each day for educational opportunities. University of Minnesota experts on prairie birds and insects led tours and spoke to the group about the prairie ecology.
This is an area that has escaped the kind of development found elsewhere in Kandiyohi County. A glacial lobe created an area of wetlands and steep hills comprised of light soils, which made the area largely undesirable for farming.
Harms said that he and his wife have committed themselves long-term to removing invasive species and keeping the native prairie. But he said that they learned it takes more than hard work to protect a prairie.
The work must be timely as well.
Scott Glup of the USFWS in Litchfield toured the prairie with the couple earlier this year and warned them. Woody invaders were moving in to the prairie at a fast pace. The native prairie could be lost in as little as 15 years if action wasn't taken, he warned them.
With the alarm bell sounded, Glup went to work and obtained grant funding to help support the effort of volunteers who could help Harms and Freese clear the native prairie. He turned to Amy Rager, coordinator for Minnesota's Master Naturalist program in this area, for the volunteers.
The work they accomplished last week, along with prescribed burns and on-going cutting, will protect the native prairie.
Lee pointed out how important that is.
We can restore lands to prairie, he said, but these restored prairies do not have anywhere near the diversity of plants. It takes hundreds of years for prairies to develop, and restored prairies today are virtual islands. They are not located next to native prairie with a diverse seed stock to help colonize them.
Once native prairie is gone, Lee said, it can be gone forever.