Within Scott County where the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is located, agricultural development has been the single largest source of local habitat removal. Over the past approximate 150 years, nearly 70 percent of upland forest and prairie in the area have been removed for agriculture. This has resulted in the loss of native plants and animals in the area. Not only is this an ecological loss but also a loss of the Community’s culture base. Traditional foods continue to play an important role in Community life. While new impacts on remaining native habitat continue in the region, the Community actively works to retain and restore native habitat which includes traditional foods and medicines. This has included monitoring the health and well-being of larger trees on the reservation and the planting of culturally relevant trees like black cherry, juneberry, plum, red cedar, sumac, and chokecherry. The Community has also converted over 600 acres of former agricultural land to native prairie and wetland using plants like sage, sweetgrass, reeds, wild rice, arrowhead (water potato), and others.
In many areas of the Community, prairie grasses, and wildflowers now grow as they did centuries ago. Prairies filter phosphorous and nitrogen from the soil, improve water quality, reduce or eliminate erosion, provide habitat for nesting birds, increase species diversity, and add an unmatched aesthetic value. They also attract a variety of butterflies and insects, are hunting grounds for many natural predators, and alternatively provide cover for prey. But it is the cultural value of the prairies that is most important to the Shakopee Mdewakanton.
“Our ancestors’ lives were organized around their landscape. They lived in their environment. Their food, fiber, and spiritual life were based on the land on which they lived. Our culture and landscape is intimately intertwined. We have to have the landscape in order to preserve our culture,” said SMSC Chairman Stanley R. Crooks.
SMSC’s prairie restoration efforts over the past 10 years have already reaped benefits by the return of native grassland birds which now breed on the Community. The restoration efforts have reintroduced uncommon grassland-specific birds to Community lands including the Grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), and the Dicksissel (Spiza Americana). A Community faunal atlas is currently in production. A restored wetland also provides important habitat for a nesting family of the regionally declining Black Tern (Chlidonias niger). This same wetland also contains the largest population of the newest addition to Minnesota’s flora, the buttercup pennywort, Hydrocotyle ranunculoides. Staff biologists conducting fauna and flora surveys of the Community’s land made these discoveries. There has also been a corresponding increase in several species of raptors and small mammals like mice, meadow voles, and shrews.
The reasons for bringing native plants back are varied, but all support tribal sovereignty. One of the first restoration projects involved a portion of a non-tribal city park, Shakopee Memorial Park. The park contains multiple burial mounds. Like the rest of the park, the City had covered the area in turf. City staff mowed over the mounds on a weekly basis. The Community stepped in and re-established savannah plants. The Community now maintains this important area in a more culturally appropriate manner.
Other restoration projects were designed to control storm water runoff, improve water quality, or for Clean Water Act required wetland mitigation (2:1 wetland replacement for wetlands filled for development). While wetlands have been replaced due to federal law, the SMSC is replacing them in a culturally relevant fashion. Wild rice, which has not been present in the area for many years, has been hand sown and is now growing in the Community’s restored wetlands.
Many of the details of Community habitat restoration and management are location-specific, but the concept can be applied on a wider scale. The Community staff biologists have presented breeding bird survey methods at a tribal environmental meeting (EPA General Assistance Program), and the Community has hosted a Habitat Evaluation Procedure class with attendees from various tribes from Minnesota and Wisconsin. The message of habitat restoration has been spread by various Community publications, articles in local non-tribal papers, and several appearances on public television’s Native Report program that airs in seven states across the country. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams even featured a story on the SMSC’s prairie restoration efforts on July 15, 2008.
On former farmland, prairie restoration is a detailed process which takes years to complete. Restoring native prairies and wetlands requires equipment, resources, knowledge, patience, and even skilled wildland firefighters. There is no standard recipe for restoration, and the SMSC Land and Natural Resources Department has been through many trials and errors. Typical agricultural fields or disturbed wetlands have accumulated many weed seeds. Initially the area is allowed to grow fallow to exhaust the weed seed bank. Before these weeds can reproduce, the field is mowed or herbicided. In the case of wetlands, it may sometimes be flooded for the same effect. It may take two to three mowing events or years of flooding before the majority of weeds are gone.
After weeds are mitigated, a disk pulled behind a tractor fluffs up the soil, before a seed drill places the seeds into the soil. Seeds have to be drilled into the soil because they are tiny and prone to fly away, unlike the hard seeds of corn kernels or sunflower seeds. Then, periodic mowing, weed removal, and occasional prescribed burns are used to simulate natural conditions to which the native prairie plants are adapted. Within a few years, the native prairie is thriving.
After the native plants emerge, weeds may still be present. These are managed by mowing or herbicide. While there is no textbook case of restoration, it generally takes four years after planting to have a native dominated habitat. However, management does not end there; fire is an important part of the natural history of prairies and wetlands in this area. Because wildfires no longer run wild due to active suppression efforts, the Community has a prescribed fire program combining efforts between the Mdewakanton Emergency Services, the SMSC Land and Natural Resources Department, and in some cases the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Community restored prairies and wetlands range in age from one to seven years.
Some of the grasses planted on Community land include Big Bluestem, Canada Wild Rye, Switch Grass, Indian Grass, and Prairie Cord Grass. Some of the forbs include Sage, Swamp Milkweed, New England Aster, Rattlesnake Master, Prairie Blazing Star, Wild Bergamot, Purple Prairie Clover, Mountain Mint, Yellow Coneflower, Compass Plant, Cup Plant, Common Ironweed, Culver’s Root, and Purple Coneflower. Many of these are traditional medicines of the Dakota people.
In the summer of 2008, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community restored 400 acres of former farmland to native prairie in a cooperative project with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the University of Minnesota. More than 200 acres of former farmland and wetlands were previously reclaimed by the SMSC over the past few years and returned to their pre-European settlement status using standard restoration techniques.
Dr. David Tillman (Regents' Professor, McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology) from the University has been doing research for years on mixes of prairie grasses which might work best for biomass and cellulosic ethanol projects. His research, conducted on 870 square foot plots, has yielded valuable information which he has shared with the SMSC whose staff is further developing this research using production scale 40-acre parcels. Drought tolerant, climate adapted grass mixes and perennials which will be harvested for use in the Community’s joint venture Koda Energy are being researched. Various seed mixes are being tried using half a dozen grasses and three dozen flower species which were all native to this area. The research site is located in Shakopee, Minnesota, on fee land purchased in recent years. Koda Energy is currently under construction and will be operational by December 2008.
“We are looking for which mixes give us the most amount of biomass per acre for the least cost and are perennial. We need it to come up every year,” explained SMSC Department of Land and Natural Resources Manager Stan Ellison. “There are a lot of variables to be determined through research. Nobody else is doing exactly this: growing native prairie grasses on a large scale for a biomass project.”
The prairie grasses will likely be mowed in early winter after they have dried but before snowfall so that nutrients return to the roots. After harvesting, bailing, and chopping, the prairie grasses will be burned and measured for BTU’s (British Thermal Units). The SMSC has consulted with University staff and plans to share the results of their research with the University.
As for the DNR’s part of the project, “The DNR is interested in helping farmers find crops for marginal lands so they planted prairie grasses including native prairie wildflowers on the right of way of county and state highways. In our case that was for the roadways on County Roads 16 and 21. They also let us use their Bryllium 12-foot seed drill,” Ellison said. He explained that the SMSC has its own six-foot seed drill, which it used for the project as well, but the 12-foot version greatly sped up the planting process. DNR staff also consulted with SMSC staff for the project. The DNR hopes to utilize their research findings to help farmers turn profit out of lands typically unsuitable for farming. The SMSC will share the results of their research with the DNR as well.
Two hundred acres of the 400 are being used for research with the remaining 200 acres harvested for use as bison feed. Heavenly Ranch of Kilkenny, Minnesota, a bison ranch owned and operated by Community member Kathy Crooks and her husband Ernie Symmes, harvest and feed the prairie grasses to their bison. Heavenly Ranch bison meat is served at Community restaurants and available for sale commercially. The 200 acres is located on the northern part of trust application land off McKenna Road in Shakopee.