Nature Nut: Goat prairies are another endangered area habitat

Goat prairies have a unique micro-climate due to the angle of the sun hitting the hillside, both in summer and winter.

I pulled myself up over the limestone ledge and there it was, staring me in the face.  I saw its tail and heard it rattle, which confirmed my suspicion. 

After pinning its head down with a stick, I carried it back down the hill, put it in a sock, and later took it home.  I kept it for about a year learning some things about rattlesnakes and entertaining my friends with it until my mother discovered it in a small tank under my bed. 

Climbing this hillside between softball games in Alma, Wis., was probably my first experience on a goat prairie.  At that time in my youth I didn’t know what a goat prairie was and, unfortunately for the snake, did not know I should have just left it there.  Had there been a Quarry Hill or Eagle Bluff around then, perhaps I would have known better.

Unlike flat or rolling prairies we are more familiar with, goat prairies are found on hillsides.  More specifically they are found on the southwest facing slopes of hills which the glaciers left untouched in the driftless areas of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and southwestern Wisconsin.  I assume they were called goat prairies because of their steep slopes that other grazers would find difficult to walk on. 

Thousands of these hillside prairies are found along the Mississippi, Whitewater and Root River corridors in this part of the state.  They often have very thin soil layers and, if not degraded, are easy to pick out with their lack of tree cover.  Unfortunately most have degraded over the years due to human impacts on the prairies, especially the suppression of fires, the natural maintainer of all prairies.


Goat prairies have a unique micro-climate due to the angle of the sun hitting the hillside, both in summer and winter. Along with thin soil and fire, this micro-climate helped keep out the hardwood forests which would grow much better on the other sides of these hills. 

With a different climate come different plants and critters that inhabit goat prairies. Plants that thrive well on these slopes include the early crocus-like pasque flower, silky aster, leadplant and rough blazing star, along with a variety of other flowers and grasses. Animal species may include many small rodents, butterflies and other insects, along with numerous spider species

Also finding goat prairies to their liking are two of Minnesota’s three lizards, the prairie skink and the racerunner.  And rattlesnakes like the one I found 40-plus years ago are another inhabitant of goat prairies. 

The degradation of these hillside prairies has had severe impacts on goat prairie inhabitants mentioned above. Fortunately over the past few decades the Minnesota DNR, along with organizations like the Minnesota Land Trust and Prairie Enthusiasts have recognized goat prairies as an important part of the southeastern Minnesota landscape.  Concerted efforts to identify and restore many of these prairies have taken place with removal of invasive cedar and buckthorn trees and controlled fire management being the main efforts. 

Like most people, I admittedly haven’t spent much time on goat prairies.  However, they represent an important part of what is natural and wild in this part of the country, and certainly deserve our attention.

What To Read Next
Get Local