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Replanting the prairie; Initiative aims to reintroduce prairie places to Fargo-Moorhead

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Bryan Sprenger is practicing a reverse form of farming. Instead of breaking up the prairie, the Grey Eagle man is bringing it back to life. Sprenger, who works for Prairie Restorations Inc., spent a sunny Thursday, June 24, ste...

Bryan Sprenger plants seed to restore a six-acre field to native grasses for the Prairie Restorations, Inc. Thursday, June 23, 2016, near the Red River in north Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Bryan Sprenger shows some of the wet grass seed he is planting Thursday, June 23, 2016, near the Red River in north Moorhead. (Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor)

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Bryan Sprenger is practicing a reverse form of farming.

Instead of breaking up the prairie, the Grey Eagle man is bringing it back to life.

Sprenger, who works for Prairie Restorations Inc., spent a sunny Thursday, June 24, steering a John Deere tractor and pulling a seeder around six acres of Red River bottom land north of the Moorhead Country Club.

If all goes well, in a few years the area on the north end of North River Drive will be a flower-packed grassland, much like it was before farming and urban sprawl ripped it up.

The work is part of the “Urban Woods and Prairies Initiative,” paid for by Audubon Dakota with donated funds and in-kind help from local governments

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Last year, Princeton-based Prairie Restorations tilled and seeded about 142 acres on the Fargo side of the Red River in areas where there were home buyouts and other flood mitigation efforts, said Blaine Keller, the firm’s site manager. This year, another 50 acres are being seeded, mostly in Moorhead, with some further work in Fargo, Keller said.

“It’s a three- to five-year kind of thing until the full maturity,” Keller said. “It isn’t an overnight thing.”

Marshall Johnson, executive director of Audubon Dakota, said the goal is to restore 1,500 acres of riparian prairie, floodplain forests and wetlands to their natural state, which will not only make those areas more enjoyable for people but provide ecological benefits such as filtering water as it flows to the river, and create habitat for songbirds, pollinating insects and other critters.

“So far, so good. We’ve done a lot of woodland and prairie enhancement and restoration. And prairies take patience. So we’re being patient, and kind of managing and establishing these prairies so they can be vibrant and in the long haul lower the maintenance costs for the two cities (Fargo and Moorhead),” Johnson said.

Audubon Dakota is partnering with both cities, the Fargo Park District, Cass and Clay counties and the Buffalo Red River Watershed District on the project.

Audubon Dakota has raised and invested $570,000 in the project, thanks to Corwin Automotive, Starion Financial, the Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation, the Outdoor Heritage Fund, and the Ron Miller and Brad Freeman families, Johnson said.

“Audubon has a saying, ‘Where birds thrive, people prosper.’ So this is really a people and a wildlife program,” Johnson said.

Dave Leker, Fargo’s director of parks, said several parks in the city and parts of rural subdivisions south of town have already had some prairie restoration done, including Pontes Park, Unicorn Park, a clay “borrow pit” area between 52nd and 64th avenues south, and in Forest River, Orchard Glen and Heritage Hills.

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“It’s been tried (prairie restoration) in Fargo quite a few times, and we haven’t had much success,” Leker said. “We’re trying to get it right this time.”

The Fargo Park District has done a good job of creating golf courses and other facilities, but it’s also important to give people an opportunity to reconnect with nature, said Clay Whittlesey, director of recreation.

“I think it’s really going to help put us on the map for nature parks and birding and more outdoor activities, so, yeah, we’re really excited about it,” Whittlesey said.

Six project sites are owned by the city of Moorhead and one by the Buffalo Red River Watershed District, said Kristie Leshovsky, a Moorhead planner. The two Moorhead sites being worked on this year are the North River Drive acreage, and an area by Riverview Circle South.

Ron Bowen, founder of Prairie Restorations, said a big key to the process is matching the right species of grasses and wildflowers to an area’s soil and moisture conditions.

The seed used locally is raised in Hawley, Minn., Bowen said.

“Any little habitat that we can save or restore, it helps. It helps a lot,” Bowen said.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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