Migratory birds, waterfowl, nesting songbirds and other wildlife have a new place to call home at Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota. Thousands of acres of marginal farmland have been converted back to native tallgrass prairie and wetlands in the nation’s largest contiguous restoration effort of its kind.

The refuge was established in 2004 to preserve and restore native tallgrass prairie and wetlands. Its acquisition boundary spans about 36,000 acres. Most of the land—lying in the sandy, rocky beaches of glacial Lake Agassiz—was once used for crop production and cattle/sheep grazing. Today much of it is again thriving for wildlife.

“You’re looking at basically the size of a township,” says Greg Bengtson, project manager for the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). “That’s a huge area.”

Over the past decade, Bengtson has worked with The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, two dozen other partners and 11 private landowners to conserve about 2,000 acres a year at Glacial Ridge Refuge via the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program.

“From the beginning, the partnership focused on The Nature Conservancy and NRCS initiating the project through land acquisition and prairie reconstruction, and the Fish and Wildlife Service concentrating on long–term management,” says Glacial Ridge Refuge manager Dave Bennett.

TNC purchased 24,000 acres from Tilden Farms Inc. in the early 2000s. The NRCS Wetland Reserve Program facilitated replanting of native tallgrass prairie habitats and restoration of land hydrology. The Service now owns about 21,000 acres, most via purchase or donation from TNC.

The refuge is managing the land, Bennett says, by controlling invasive species, such as reed canary grass, willows and hybrid cattails, that “are tenaciously trying to grow” and by managing diversity of plant species/vegetation height on the prairie.

With these combined efforts, Glacial Ridge Refuge is the largest contiguous tract of Wetland Reserve Program land in Minnesota and the largest contiguous tallgrass prairie project in U.S. history.

“We call it reconstructed prairie, rather than restored prairie,” says Bennett, “because the success of true prairie restoration is a many–years endeavor.”

Bennett, who has been manager since the refuge’s establishment, notes that only 1 percent remains of the 18 million acres of native tallgrass prairie that existed in Minnesota at the time of European settlement. This project represents a good start on prairie reconstruction, he says, but what makes it particularly valuable is its contiguousness. Contiguous native tallgrass prairie is vital to upwards of 300 wildlife and bird species.

Beyond that, Bennett says, an important legacy of the project is that the NRCS/TNC/Fish and Wildlife Service partnership “that helped create the refuge will always be active. It will be used to expand what we’ve learned at Glacial Ridge—to take that knowledge of landscape management, the ideals that benefit nature and people—and expand it beyond the current boundary.” Bennett and Bengtson emphasize that, along with improved habitat for native plants and animals, Glacial Ridge Refuge helps humans, too.

Healthy native tallgrass prairie and wetlands “improve the quality of the water running off the site and into the township,” says Bengtson. New public drinking–water wells for the city of Crookston, MN, are on Glacial Ridge Refuge. In addition to providing natural water filtration, healthy habitat saves communities money by providing natural flood control.

Despite a recently published U. S. Geology Survey study that documented mercury in some shallow refuge wetlands, Bennett says that wetlands are a vital component of prairie habitat.

“Mercury deposition that has fallen on our Earth is detectable in various degrees across northern Minnesota,” he says. “The degree to which this affects the biotic communities is something we will study, better understand and manage.”

Michelle Banks is a Natural Resource Conservation Service public affairs officer. Bill O’Brian is managing editor of Refuge Update.