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Return of the native

December 23, 2008


Victoria Ranua looking at a flower.

Victoria Ranua is helping restore native grasses to be used as a source of energy.

Photo: Tim Rummelhoff

U alumna helps bring back the prairie and create a source of power

By Stephanie Xenos

Ask Victoria Ranua to name all of the native Minnesota plants she knows and you had better have some time to spare. Ranua knows Minnesota flora like the back of her hand. "I used to be a runner and I would run through the woods and see these beautiful white flowers, tons of them," says Ranua. "I wanted to know what they were."

That fateful encounter with a flower proved a catalyst. Ranua studied plant biology as a College of Biological Sciences undergraduate, then as a graduate student. She graduated with a master's degree in plant biology in August. While she may be a walking encyclopedia of plant facts, her interest is far from passive.

"Nobody focuses on identifying the plants of Minnesota," says Ranua. "That's a passion for me, knowing the plants of Minnesota and their role." Identifying them-and reintroducing them.

For the past three years she has worked with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in the southwest metro surveying flora on the reservation and working on a program to restore native prairie.

Ranua spends her days cataloging the plants present on the reservation. While many of the plants that turn up in her flora survey are non-native, some are more surprising than others. She recently discovered the Hydrocotyle ranuculoides (Buttercup Pennywort), a plant endangered in Illinois and never before spotted in Minnesota.

Her other primary role is to help restore native prairie to a large section of the reservation. "Most of our prairie restorations are where Sugar Maple forest used to be," says Ranua. "It's easier to put a prairie back than it is to put a forest back." So far, 100 acres of native prairie have been reestablished along with 200 acres of buffalo hay, which will be used as a sustainable source of biofuel. By next year, the tribe hopes to have 500 of its 2,000 acres planted in prairie grasses.

The prairie grasses will feed the tribe's new biofuel energy plant, Koda Energy. "The tribe is trying to find a sustainable and culturally relevant way to address energy needs," says Ranua. "We've done a lot of prescribed burns of prairie grass, and you can just see the energy stored in those systems." Prescribed burns are used to replicate the role of fire in prairie ecosystems.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton settled on prairie grass as an ideal source of energy because it is a self-sustaining perennial that lasts thousands of years. "They wanted to have a low-input system from which to gather fuel while also creating habitat, preventing soil erosion, and improving water quality."

The project draws on the findings of world-renowned researcher David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences, who has shown that using mixed prairie grasses as a source of biomass for biofuel production trumps mono-crops such as corn and switchgrass. Says Ranua: "This is the first project we know of that's bringing research to a production scale."

Restoring the habitat has had a ripple effect in other ways, too. "When my coworkers started their faunal survey after prairies had been reestablished they saw the return of Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dicksissel, and Eastern Meadow Lark," says Ranua. "Those small, unexpected gains are important."

From BIO, fall 2008, the magazine of the College of Biological Sciences.

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