Catching the Prairie Bug!

Photos and Story by Jonathan Rigden

This story was featured as a guest column in The La Crosse Tribune. 

View of the Mississippi River from Marowski Bluff Prairie

Zoerb Prairie in Hixon Forest in August with rough blazing star blooming in the foreground. 

Do you know that prairies and oak savannas once filled much of the landscape in western Wisconsin and that only a tiny fraction remains? And that this tiny fraction is disappearing fast? Some readers may have heard of a group called The Prairie Enthusiasts. This organization is a nonprofit land trust that has chapters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois and works throughout the tristate area to save as many of these relics from the past as possible. In doing so, we hope to preserve and grow this unique ecosystem that supports an abundance of special plants and animals. The Coulee Region Chapter of the Prairie Enthusiasts includes the counties of La Crosse, Vernon, Monroe, Buffalo, Trempealeau, and Jackson.


A prairie can escape the attention of those who have never been exposed to and noticed its wonders. But something out of the blue can spark an interest, like seeing a beautiful prairie flower for the first time or colorful bees hovering over a native thistle. Then, some susceptible individuals “catch the prairie bug” and a cycle begins. They identify the flower and one of the bees. On the next hike, they see another amazing flower with a delicate butterfly feeding on its nectar, look them up, and there you have it, they’re hooked! A cascade is launched- interest leads to learning leads to knowledge leads to more interest, learning, and knowledge and so on. And a fun-filled adventure awaits!

But all the beauty of the flowers, grasses, insects, birds, and other critters on the prairie can escape our interest without a spark. Like the fires that keep the prairies healthy, something must start this process. Fire is said to need three components to become self-perpetuating- fuel, oxygen, and heat. But you can have all the fuel, oxygen, and heat in the world and there won’t be a fire until a spark ignites the system. Our hikes, work events, and educational programs might be just the spark needed to set the your cycle in motion and, as we say, “Ignites your relationship with the land”!


Many of you might have noticed the cleared and sometimes burned areas on some of the bluffs in our area, including in Hixon Forest. The Coulee Region Chapter has been involved in many of these efforts while teaming up with other groups such as Friends of the Blufflands, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, and the Wisconsin DNR. Despite this significant progress, there is still much to be done. Many bluff prairies in the Driftless Area continue to be taken over by red cedars or invasive nonnative plants like buckthorn. In a perfect “prairie world” all of these sites would be saved. That, of course, is unrealistic, but many can and should be saved before they are gone forever. This restoration and maintenance work could come from landowners, contractors, and volunteers but the effort needs to be guided and coordinated. In our six-county area, we hope that the Coulee Region Chapter can help lead this effort.  


So, as a new year begins and some of us think about our goals, perhaps one of them could be getting out, investigating the prairies near you, catching the prairie bug, and supporting the Coulee Region Chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts by becoming a member and volunteering on our work days. Check out our chapter HERE and follow us on Facebook. 


Happy New Year!