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With local help, diverse prairie grows

Somerset Wildlife Management, prairie, owatonna
Attending Wednesday’s Prairie Walk at the Somerset Wildlife Management Area were, from left: Shelley Gorham, Assistant Area Wildlife Manager; Jeanine Vorland, Area Wildlife Manager; Minnesota Pheasants Steele County board members Kevin Herzog, Rex Harriman, Dan Arndt, Kevin Stelter, Jared Prestegard (board treasurer), and Dennis Thompson Staff photo by Joni Hubred
Joni Hubred, News Editor

As I-35 traffic roars to the east, bees and butterflies bounce across native plants in what was once a corn field just outside of Owatonna.

Established in the 1950s, the Somerset Wildlife Management Area (WMA) encompasses nearly 440 acres of diverse habitat along the Straight River. The latest of several additions, a 26-acre parcel, was farmland for more than 100 years.

Two years ago, the Steele County chapter of Minnesota Pheasants Inc., working with Minnesota DNR (Department of Natural Resources) Wildlife, applied for and received a $12,000 Conservation Partners Legacy grant to establish a native prairie. The nonprofit contributed a matching $1,200.

Now in its second year of growth, the area is rich with grasses and flowers that provide a natural habitat for everything from butterflies to whitetail deer.

DNR Area Wildlife Manager Jeanine Vorland said Minnesota Pheasants also put in for a CPL grant to purchase the original Somerset property, which the owner also used as a gravel source.

“This could have been a big, giant gravel pit,” she said. “We’re really happy that they stepped in and were able to protect it.”

While the land is dedicated to wildlife conservation, it’s also part of the DNR’s outdoor recreation system and available for hunting, fishing, and trapping, Vorland said. You can even portage your canoe to the river and paddle into Owatonna.

“These areas are where we can study nature and the things that affect our habitat, so there’s an educational component to them as well,” she added.

Before Somerset WMA was established, “there was very little diverse prairie,” said Steele County Minnesota Pheasants board member Dan Arndt.

“It’s about 60 percent established, so it’s just going to get better from here,” he said.

Arndt laid out a route for a short prairie walk on July 27 that included a close-up look at plants like the Showy Tick Trefoil, Bergamot, Golden Alexander, and the Compass Plant, named because of its orientation on a north-south axis.

Vorland said when pioneers put their cattle out to pasture, the animals favored the Compass Plant so much it disappeared from the prairie. Native Americans used the sap for chewing gum. 

Big Blue Stem was the predominant prairie grass when the area was first settled. The leaves eventually turn the same blue color as the stem.

“This is the one, when you read pioneer books, they talk about this… the grass that tickled the bellies on the horses,” Vorland said.

The CPL program is tied to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, established by Minnesota voters in 2008. Grants fund projects that restore, enhance, or protect forests, wetlands, prairies, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife. 

Other plant species in the area include Western Yarrow, Canada Milk Vetch, Rattlesnake Master, Ox-eye Sunflower, Prairie Phlox, Mountain Mint, Prairie Wild Rose, Black Eyed Susan, Grassed-leaved Golden Rod, Stiff Goldenrod, and Common Ironweed.

Anyone can spend time enjoying nature at the Somerset WMA; you’ll find the parking lot at 2554 28th St. SW in Owatonna.

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