HOUSTON — A south facing bluff near the Mound Prairie Scientific Area has had a facelift in recent years.

More specifically, a tree lift.

The bluffland prairie site is starting to look more like a prairie after some tree removal and the healthy appetite of some goats.

“This has come a long way,” said Russell Smith, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources director of scientific and natural areas.

Further west in Houston County, at Wetbark bluff, Kyle Johnson, of Diversity Landworks, walked to his portable electric fence and disconnected the power and called for his goats.

“Hey yeah, goats,” he shouted up the hillside.

A few goats ambled down to the forested area of the lower bluff, investigated the group of naturalists and then made their way back up where the bluff is less vegitated. There, the slope is steeper, rocky and less tree covered. That’s where their work is needed the most.

Johnson was hired to clear cedar trees from that area a few years ago. He charged about $1,700 to $2,500 per acre to clear the land of trees.

“Man, it sucked,” he said of the work.

Shrub trimmers

To bring his goats to graze the space, Johnson charges about $550 per acre.

“It’s building off an investment,” he said of the grazing work.

The goats keep in check the smaller shrubs that took root under the trees that had covered the bluff.

“They go after exactly what we need them to go after,” said Mike Worland, DNR nongame specialist.

This allows native prairie grasses to take hold again. Along with those, other species native to the unique environment are rebounding.

“You see plant species up there you normally associate with western South Dakota,” said David Schmidt, the Nature Conservancy’s Southeast Minnesota conservation coordinator.

TNC partners with the DNR to manage some of the prairie sites.

A pair of six-lined racerunner lizards scurry away from the party ascending the bluff to check on the goat herd. Other wildlife native to the prairies includes timber rattlesnakes, pollinators such as the endangered rusty patch bumblebee and numerous other threatened or endangered species.

For people worried about rattlesnakes moving into their town because of efforts to rebuild their habitat, the opposite is what will happen.

“The only reason rattlesnakes go anywhere is to hunt or bask,” Worland said. Restoring their habitat helps keep them on the steep, arid bluffs.

Prairie home

The nature of the bluffs also creates more opportunities to restore prairie. Unlike many other converted prairie sites, the bluffs are too steep to farm, Smith said.

“You’re not competing with agriculture and it’s not as degraded,” he said.

Native grazers and wildfires once sustained the small microclimate prairies before human activity helped invasive species take hold in the areas. This time of year, fire could do more harm than good, as many species are trying to propagate.

The south facing prairies have declined and so have the species they support. Conservation of the areas not only helps the species native to them but also helps the people who live below them. It might seem counter intuitive, but the cedar trees and brush that take hold there without management lead to erosion.

“Getting those prairie communities on these very steep, very erodable hills, it keeps the sediment where it should be,” Schmidt said.

Near Mound Prairie, Smith surveys the progress of restoration work there. He likes what he sees, he said.

“Four years ago this was solid cedar trees,” he added.

Now the bluff is mostly covered with prairie grasses. Also dotting the hill are some goats and a few woody shrubs.

Smith said can spot areas in the tree-covered bluffs that he said were once prairie.

“You can drive through here and see where the prairie would be,” he said. “It’s just solid cedar trees now.”

Public funding

Goat grazing and prescribed burns help manage some of the prairies that have been cleared of trees. Much of the work by TNC and the DNR is funded by the outdoor heritage fund.

“I think of (the outdoor heritage fund) as a gift Minnesota gave itself,” Schmidt said.

“We’ve invested a lot of time and a lot of money to get where we are,” he added. “Now we just need to keep up management.”

Remnant prairies cover less than 2 percent of land in Minnesota, said Barb Perry, DNR nongame specialist.

Goats are used to control invasive hardwood shrubs at eight sites — two of them privately owned. Naturalists began using goats to manage prairie sites in 2012 beginning in Rushford. Previously tree-covered bluffs now converted to prairies dot the landscape around the town.

At Olson Bluff in Rushford, Johnny Micheel’s goats graze the city-owned slop that’s managed by TNC and the DNR. He said Rushford has been a partner in the restoration efforts.

“They’ve been very active about managing the bluffs and allowing DNR and TNC in to the maintenance,” said Micheel, co-owner of Chimney Rock Forestry.

From a lookout vantage point, Worland and Schmidt survey the visible prairie bluffs. Having contiguous habitat is important for species viability and genetic diversity. It’s here naturalists can see that larger goal coming into view.

We’re starting to get 70 acres around here,” Schmidt said. “It’s not contiguous but it’s certainly close enough.”

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