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House on the (native) prairie

Over the past decade, Mike Monteith (pictured) and his wife, Kele, have cared for a prairie grass and wild flower plot on their property just east of New Richmond. In the spring, wild flowers are in full bloom. During the fall months, prairie grasses seem to take over.

A New Richmond couple has transformed their residential property into a restored native prairie, thanks to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources program.

Kele and Mike Monteith, who live off County Road K east of New Richmond, signed up for the DNR program about 10 years ago.

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act program required the landowners to leave the native grass and flower plantings alone, for the most part, and recommended minimal maintenance of the vegetation.

The Monteiths built their home 11 years ago on 26 acres, just a field away from the family homestead where Mike Monteith grew up.

A short time later, DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor Harvey Halvorsen approached the couple suggesting that they consider planting prairie grass and prairie flowers on a chunk of their land. It didn't take them long to agree.

"I'm a believer that you can't build houses everywhere because there wouldn't be any wildlife around," Mike Monteith said.

To prepare the property for a prairie restoration process, Monteith said DNR officials sprayed the land to kill off all of the vegetation. Then crews came in to scatter the native grass and prairie flower seed.

"They provided the seed and they planted it," Monteith said. "We just had to make a 10-year commitment not to plow it up. We couldn't do anything to the land but burn it or clip it."

Monteith said he paid a little extra to add more flowers to his native prairie seed mix.

"The seed is kind of expensive and it's hard to find," he said. "But if you don't make it part of the planting right away, it won't do as well."

Once the prairie was planted, Monteith said the waiting game began.

"It takes three or four years before you even see anything," he said of the slow process for the prairie to become established.

But once the plot near his home matured, the results were amazing, Monteith reported.

As each summer approaches, the prairie is alive with many wildflowers. As the warm months tick by, the native grasses reach to the sky and take over the plot.

The native prairie now helps attract a wide variety of butterflies, song birds and wildlife to the Monteith's yard. Rare bobolinks and meadowlarks can often be seen flying among the native plants.

"There are hardly any left around here," he said of the birds. "They're prairie grass birds. You're not going to have them in town."

The Monteiths have had sandhill cranes, pheasant, deer and occasional bears frequent their native prairie as well. And the variety of butterflies is so impressive that Kele uses binoculars and a butterfly book to chronicle visitors to their land.

"We did this for the enjoyment of it," Monteith said. "Listening to the birds singing in the morning ... seeing the wildlife."

In the wintertime, the stands of grass also provide cover and a food source for the local wildlife, Monteith noted.

As his 10-year agreement comes to an end this fall, Monteith said he's been approached by a local farmer asking if he can rent the land to plant corn or soybeans. The property owners have declined the offer.

"I'm not going to do anything with the prairie," he said. "I like it the way it is. It's not about the revenue I can get from the land, it's about Mother Nature."

According to Halvorsen, there is currently no local money available for landowners through the NAWCA program. DNR officials are trying to secure some additional funding so more private landowners can participate.

People who own agricultural land can enroll cropland in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and accomplish a similar prairie restoration. They receive annual rental payments for 10 to 15 years from CRP as well.

If more prairie plots can be established across the region, Halvorsen explained, everyone benefits. Native flowers are important for the health of pollinators, like bees.

"Prairies, prairie wildflowers, and much fruit production depend on insect pollinators," he said.

The prairie plots also add to the color palette of rural areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Halvorsen said.

"It provides color and structure very different from the drab, monotypic, huge fields of corn seen everywhere," he said. "I'd like to someday see patches or wide strips of prairie pollinator habitats interspersed within the landscapes of corn and soybeans."

For more information, contact Halvorsen at 715-684-2914, ext. 113, or Caitlin Smith with the New Richmond office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at 715-246-7784.