‘Simply a beautiful complex’: Minnesota maps new hunting and wildlife areas full of benefits

Tract 1 of Wachter Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in southern Minnesota was turned over to the State Department of Conservation in 1954 by Helen and Ivan Wachter, landowners in the Worthington area.

This spring, possibly on Earth Day, official signage for Tract 17 from the same WMA will be stamped into the prairie to signify the latest addition to what has become a verdant, 473-acre wildlife refuge that draws hunters, birdwatchers, wildlife photographers and collectors. from near and far.

“You can walk for miles on it,” said Bill Schuna, area manager for wildlife at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It’s just the most beautiful complex.”

The 57-acre Guardian Addition, assembled by Pheasants Forever (PF) with funding from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund, was one of 34 plots of land (including one easement) transferred to the DNR two weeks ago in the final “designation order” of new state-owned conservation areas. The orders, which are completed in batches every year or two, officially list the recreation areas on state maps and grant management authority to the DNR.

“It’s kind of like the grand opening,” said Jeff Tillma, DNR land acquisition coordinator.

According to the DNR, the new WMA lots total 5,296 acres, or the equivalent of 8.3 square miles. They are mainly located south of the line from Ortonville in the west to Hastings in the east, a predominantly agricultural area where there are no public hunting grounds. At least 30 of the new properties adjoin existing WMAs or pheasant habitat complexes to fit into an overall strategy to build large, contiguous tracts of natural space for wildlife to thrive.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Tillma said. “The more pieces you can put together, the bigger the habitat.”

Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Pheasants Forever led many of the latest group of projects by finding willing vendors, attracting local partners and providing expertise for wetland and upland restoration. With core funding through the historic Legacy Amendment, the latest block of WMAs came together at a cost of approximately $20 million. The amount includes local donations, grants from the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act, proceeds from the sale of hunting licenses, and contributions from various conservation groups.

Jon Schneider, DU manager of conservation programs in Minnesota, said his group strategically purchases marginal cropland with recoverable wetlands. Preferably, the sites are adjacent to shallow lakes managed by the DNR and other locations where the agency wants to own and manage more land. Like DU’s previous WMA projects, the latest sites fit in with the mission to restore habitats for nesting and migrating waterfowl.

Three new projects in particular — Indian Lake WMA near Winthrop, Goose Prairie WMA east of Moorhead, and Seymour Lake WMA in Martin County — called for significant amounts of wetland and prairie restoration, including the removal of subsurface drainage tiles to restore hydrology and natural ponds to create.

In the case of Indian Lake, where 191 acres of new public land will help buffer the lake and facilitate water management measures, the WMA expansion will spur DNR’s move to designate Indians’ waters as the state’s newest Wildlife Management Lake. state. The designation gives legal authority to manage water levels to improve aquatic ecology.

“We’re strategically moving the needle and creating a wetland habitat in the prairie,” Schneider said.

Indian Lake WMA began years ago with a lot sold by a conservation-minded landowner who was done with farming. As more pieces have been added and restored, the place has grown into a 587-acre home for ducks, pheasants, songbirds, birds of prey, insects, pollinators, and other non-wildlife wildlife.

Goose Prairie WMA in Clay County grew 31% to 642 acres with the latest expansion. In addition to restoring wetlands that have returned large, circular ponds to the landscape, the conservation area includes 107 acres of upland grasses and wildflowers that provide nesting cover for waterfowl and other grassland-dependent birds.

DU says the complex will improve the area’s water quality and provide new opportunities for hunting and birdwatching. Schneider said the return of wetlands has attracted a brooding pair of canvasbacks.

“It’s not surprising,” he said, “but terribly worth seeing.”

The new set of conservation areas range in size, reaching 955 acres in Cupid WMA northwest of Becker in Norman County. In Le Sueur County, east of St. Peter, Diamond Lake WMA received 358 new acres that “represent the final piece of the puzzle securing an entire wetland basin.” At Maple River WMA in Blue Earth County, 15 acres of new public hunting land also completed state ownership of land adjacent to the river.

Benefits attributed to various projects include the protection of a deer wintering area, the protection of native prairie remnants, “close to home” opportunities to recruit new hunters and fishermen, and the preservation of a critical habitat for prairie chickens.

Eran Sandquist is state coordinator for Minnesota Pheasants Forever. He pointed to the success of Wachter WMA when asked to highlight a project that is part of the recent series of new recreational areas.

Decades ago, the conservation nonprofit turned to Wachter for its first acquisition and restoration project. From the start, the complex has benefited from a true partnership of wildlife and water interests, Sandquist said. It all started with the Wachter family’s wish to preserve a large pool.

Tract 17, the newest addition, is a 57-acre lot that connects the WMA’s main unit to its “Eastern Addition.” The expansion will convert more farmland into a habitat for wildlife, as well as provide another protective filter for groundwater tapped by Worthington’s public utility for homes and businesses.

Partners in Tract 17 include the city’s Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Clean Water Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the local PF branch.

“It’s a nice marriage … to use the dollars to do one project with many benefits within a local community,” Sandquist said.

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