March 7, 2021

Stevens County Times

Your spot for community news in Stevens County, Minnesota

Restoring the Prairie: One tiny seed at a time

There is nothing quite as majestic as a rolling field of natural prairie grasses blowing in the breeze. Green grasses, rolling hills and native plants create an environment that is not just beautiful to look at but also a vital part of our environment. The preservation of natural prairie is important for clean water, wildlife and pollinator habitat and energy production.

In a public land survey conducted from 1847 – 1908, Minnesota had 18 million acres of prairie. Today only a little over one percent of native prairie remains. This remaining prairie is mostly located in the western portion of the state.  Realizing the vital need for protecting our remaining prairie and gathering seeds to restore prairie areas, three members of the University of Minnesota faculty have collaborated to form the Healthy Prairies Project. 

Two of the faculty members, Ruth Shaw and Georgiana May, are at the Twin Cities campus and the third member, Margaret Kuchenreuther, is a professor at the Morris campus. The Healthy Prairies Project is funded by the Minnesota Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). This committee decides how to allocate money from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which derives most of its funds from Minnesota Lottery proceeds. The Minnesota legislature must approve the recommended projects. 

The Healthy Prairies Project received its first funding in 2014. The second round was also approved. They recently applied for a third round and are waiting for legislative approval. Shaw and May originally applied for the funding, then invited Kuchenreuther to join the project.

The work of Healthy Prairies is divided into three activities. The first activity is primarily what is done in this area. This focuses on preserving and propagating prairie diversity through collecting seeds from plants in the few remaining prairies in this area. Kuchenreuther enlists the help of University of Minnesota Morris students to do this work.

The students identify the plants in remaining native prairies and document locations. After the plants have completed their bloom cycles, the students will return to the area and collect seeds. This is not always an easy process because sometimes the plants are very small and nestled in long grasses. The seeds are then offered to private growers who can propagate them and provide seeds of known geographic origin for use in prairie restoration. The team is seeking to identify and collect as many species as possible in order to maximize species diversity in these restorations. The Nature Conservancy, which owns some of the best remaining prairies in our region, has been an invaluable partner in this project.  

It is important to collect seeds from individuals that represent the variation in each population including, for example, large and small individuals and early and late bloomers. Maximizing diversity helps restore prairies in a healthy manner so they can “roll with the environmental punches” as Kuchenreuther explained.

She noted that we are fortunate in this area to have quite a few natural prairies remaining. Railroad right of ways are a good place to find prairie plants. She stated that there are a lot of  prairie plants along the RR right of way near Hancock. Some of the plants in this area are very rare and key for the collection process. There are also large prairie areas in and near Glacial Lakes State Park.

The second activity for Healthy Prairies is primarily done at the Twin Cities Campus. This involves experimenting with how soil-dwelling microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) interact with prairie plants to foster their growth. Georgiana May is the microbiologist who oversees these studies. May’s lab is isolating and identifying these organisms and doing experiments to understand their role in fostering successful prairie restorations.

The third activity, directed by Ruth Shaw, is investigating to what degree prairie species are locally adapted. Temperature, precipitation and soils vary across the prairie regions of Minnesota. To understand adaptation to these variables, seeds of six prairie species (two grasses, two legumes and two other wildflowers) were collected from four populations in each of four regions in Minnesota and planted in three common gardens in the western part of the state. One of these is near Morris, and Kuchenreuther’s students have partnered with students from the Twin Cities campus to measure germination, growth and flowering of the plants over the last four years. This study is important because the information gathered from these experiments will help prairie restorationists know how close to home they need to source their seeds. Prairie plants grow slowly, the results should be available soon.

UMM students are heavily involved in the project and often use this as a springboard for their careers. Many have gone on to do graduate work or get more experience in other natural resource internships. Others have utilized the experience and contacts made to obtain jobs throughout the state.

“It takes a lot of partners to manage a healthy prairie,” stated Kuchenreuther.

One of the goals of the Healthy Prairie Project is to foster reestablishment of more prairie lands throughout the state. People can take land that is not ideal for farming and create a natural prairie using the information and seeds obtained through this research. This is just a teeny tiny piece in a larger plan to get prairie back into our environment. And then make this prairie healthy and resilient, able to withstand all types of future environmental changes.