Hikers enjoy the natural beauty of the Mound Prairie State Natural Area west of Hokah.
Hikers enjoy the natural beauty of the Mound Prairie State Natural Area west of Hokah.

By Craig Moorhead

Spring Grove Herald

Houston County and Fillmore County residents may not realize just how many rare plants and animals live right in their back yards. Now, with the help of Outdoor Heritage Fund monies, two local public preserves are undergoing some boots-on-the-ground work to restore fragile ecosystems.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources naturalist Mike Dunker helps to oversee two state parks and seven Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) in the southeastern corner of the state. He spoke to the Herald last week about the habitat restoration projects, which are now in full swing.

"There's a lot of people at work here," Dunker said.

Steep, dry slopes sometimes referred to as "goat prairies" occur at Houston County's Mound Prairie SNA. "A lot of these are on the south facing slope, and that's where a lot of this work is getting done," Dunker added. "These areas typically get a lot more sunshine.

"These dry bluff prairies are rare in the state," Dunker noted. "This area (Houston and Fillmore counties) contains 40 percent of the unique species which are of special concern within the State of Minnesota.

"The problem is that with invasive red cedars crowding in, they're shading that area out and taking nutrients. We're losing a lot of those native species that were growing there. The removal of invasive plant species is already underway at Mound Prairie SNA. At stake is a long list of natives."

Wild indigo, goat's rue, jeweled shooting star, Ohio spiderwort, narrow-leaved milkweed... The DNR lists 60 wildflowers and ferns, six grasses and sedges, and 33 types of trees and shrubs at Mound Prairie SNA alone.

"There are unique animals in these habitats as well," Dunker continued. "We hear about the timber rattlesnakes, but there's a lot more. There are a number of skinks, butterfly species..." Everything from the prairie vole to numerous uncommon birds show up in the area.

"It's a whole web. You start taking one thing out, and everything collapses."

West of Rushford, Fillmore County's Sand Barrens SNA has a long work list which is just getting underway. There, invasive species will be removed in order to restore oak savanna, while other spots will be returned to native prairie. Unlike the steep hillsides of the goat prairies, the flatter, rolling savanna habitat can be mowed and seeded by conventional equipment.

MnDNR estimates that at least 13 rare plant species occur at Sand Barrens, but both SNAs probably contain more. "We had some volunteers who recently discovered some other species out there," Dunker said.

"Most of our savannas are pretty degraded by prickly ash and buckthorn and honeysuckle and some of the non-natives," project manager Jamie Edwards said.

Edwards serves as a non-game wildlife specialist in MnDNR's Rochester office.

"A lot of people don't understand the bluff work we're doing because they think it's all about snakes," she said. "But the overall benefit to a variety of wildlife is amazing, whether it's plants or animals. People don't realize how lucky they are to live here. We harbor most of the rare species in the state. We have a lot of unique habitat and critters."

The open savanna has been impacted by the suppression of naturally occurring fires and even the loss of native animal grazing, Edwards added. The Sand Barrens area also includes some bluff (sand prairie) work along hillside terraces.

"By reducing the woody vegetation the prairie will start to take over, and we can manage that with fire more effectively," she said.

"In some of those areas, they just get so closed in with brush that the fire just doesn't get hot enough to kill anything or set anything back. We have to open it back up so we can move fire back into them.

"Also, at the Rushford Sand Barrens the access easement to the property was really overgrown and basically non-passable. So we're having some trespass issues because people have to pass to either side of the easement area to get in. We've cleared all of the trees out of those areas so that access will be a lot easier.

"Our goal is to try to have that continuum of habitat from prairie to savanna to oak woodlands so that we have that whole complement of habitat to support the diverse wildlife that uses those areas."

Edwards also noted that the Fillmore County SNA adjoins state forestland, so a continuous tract of hundreds of acres is being managed together. The same management goals link Mound Prairie SNA with adjoining state lands. In addition, easement agreements with private landowners contribute to the long-term success of the habitat projects.

"We have a really good partnership with landowners and these SNAs," Dunker said.

Both areas are open to the public. Portions of the lands allow hunting, while hiking, snowshoeing and photography are also popular pursuits.