Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge Turns 15 today!

September 18, 2015

Prairie potholes of Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.
Prairie potholes of Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2000 with a goal of protecting and maintaining 77,000 acres of the last remnants of the once vast northern tallgrass prairie that covered about 25 million acres in western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa alone. This refuge provided a means of working with individuals, groups, and other government entities to permanently preserve and restore a portion of the northern tallgrass prairie. Today, almost 6,000 acres of prairie have been preserved through our management actions and those of our partners.

People visit the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge to enjoy the solitude and take in the vista of wide open spaces that are characteristic of grasslands. Visitors also come to observe grassland nesting birds. The wetlands, known as prairie potholes for this part of the country, are also popular among waterfowl hunters, as are the uplands where ring-necked pheasants are sought after. Northern Tallgrass Prairie is a snapshot into the biological past and offers people the chance to see and learn about the characteristics of remnant prairie. Understanding plant composition on these rare landscapes, such as ratios between grass, wildflowers and native shrubs, help biologists to continue prairie restoration in other sections of the historic range. This landscape also gives biologists a better understanding of the insect and pollinator species that colonize native prairies.

You are likely to see nesting migratory birds like bobolinks and dickcissels, singing from a bent stem of big bluestem grass. You might also see or hear a clay-colored sparrow buzzing from atop a native leadplant shrub. Another common sighting at the refuge are curious mounds of dirt. Thirteen-lined, and Richardson's ground squirrels alike, make them as they dig their burrows. These "gophers" may even catch the eye of a hunting red-tailed hawk or northern harrier.

The potholes, often hidden or surrounded by the tall grasses and wildflowers like ironweed, often play host to young broods of mallard and blue-winged teal. In the fall, these wetlands host even more waterfowl as they stop to feed and rest before continuing their southward migration.  In the fall, you will encounter all sorts of insect pollinators like monarchs and bumblebees, as they feed on nectar from beautiful pink and purple flowers of the common milkweed and blazing star.

Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is host to four federally threatened and endangered plant species and seven animal species, including the western prairie fringed orchid, prairie bush clover and the piping plover.

As these prairie remnants and grasslands are scattered across the landscape, so is the refuge. Spanning up to 85 counties across Minnesota and Iowa, this refuge offers a challenge to our biologists and managers. This is in contrast to most other refuges which are situated in one location or along a single designated corridor, like a major river.

The scattered and fragmented nature of the remaining prairies requires a flexible land acquisition and easement strategy. Our team relies heavily on partners like The Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever and the state agencies throughout Minnesota and Iowa to help locate, identify and permanently protect these prairie tracts. Without them, this endeavor would be even more challenging.

Learn more about Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge:

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

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