New Minnesota wildlife management area is an oasis
CLEARWATER, Minn. (AP) — Eran Sandquist waded into the prairie, stopping every so often to pinch a seed head between thumb and forefinger, to examine deer tracks in the sandy soil.
Behind him, traffic was picking up on Minnesota Highway 24 south of Clearwater. While audible, the vehicles remained invisible from this spot in the 604-acre Veterans State Wildlife Management Area, Minnesota’s newest. Shoulder-high prairie grasses and waist-high wildflowers stretched to a horizon anchored by oak forest in one direction, cattails in the other. A half-mile of the Clearwater River runs through a corner of the property, marking the boundary between Wright and Stearns counties.
Forty miles from the Twin Cities’ edge and no development in sight.
The WMA’s size, its proximity to the Twin Cities and its high-quality, diverse habitat set it apart, the St. Cloud-Times reported (http://on.sctimes.com/1rml7MK ). The $3.1 million purchase, funded partly by Legacy Amendment and Pheasants Forever dollars, preserved the land for public use. It gave the landowners a way to ensure the property would be maintained. It built upon a habitat corridor that includes the neighboring 1,000-acre Succonix WMA, and stretches to include the Hoglund WMA and the river corridors.
Minnesota’s 1,458 WMAs encompass about 1.3 million acres; average size is 300 acres. Pat Rivers, who supervises WMA acquisitions for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said about 4,000 acres are added in a typical year – most of those in the form of 40- or 80-acre extensions of existing WMAs.
“There aren’t many acquisitions that we do in this part of the state or on the prairie where they are really turnkey,” Rivers said. “The state of the lands that we acquire, they tend to be used for agriculture or they’re marginal cropland.”
This land on the edge of the Anoka Sand Plain was poor cropland, and that’s why, Welby Smith said, his father rented it out and headed for Minneapolis after World War II. The property had been in the family since 1862. About 15 years ago, Welby and two siblings, brother Keith and sister Marion Thorne, took the land out of production and began work on a 250-acre prairie restoration through the Conservation Reserve Program.
Smith, whose work on the project was separate from but informed by his job as state botanist for the DNR, said a CRP restoration required 16 species of native plants and grasses. His family planted 52 species.
“It was a lot of land, and I felt a lot of responsibility toward the land. I’ve seen so much land gobbled up with developments, with construction of Wal-Mart, and I just felt it was very important that this land be kept wild, be kept open, be kept intact and productive in a wildlife sense,” Smith said.
“The woods and the marshes were in very good shape, ecologically speaking, but the old fields weren’t able to support much plant diversity or much animal diversity,” Smith said. “We started from scratch and bare fields and tried to re-create a prairie habitat where all these species could flourish.”
In mid-September, four species of native goldenrods and several species of asters were among the plants still in bloom. The planting included an array of grasses, too – big bluestem, little bluestem, false switchgrass, Indian grass, Canada wild rye, side-oats grama among them.
The initial seeding cost about $120,000; CRP covered about half. The family took care to keep Canada thistle from invading. They managed a controlled burn every couple of years.
In the seeds of that restored prairie, Sandquist, Pheasants Forever’s new state coordinator, sees food for pheasants, turkeys and deer. He sees shelter and nesting habitat in the big bluestem that grows 7 feet tall in some parts of the WMA. He sees waterfowl habitat amid the wetlands.
“You just get this huge diversity of habitat for wildlife,” said Fred Bengtson. The DNR’s Sauk Rapids-based area wildlife manager, he’ll be in charge of maintaining the WMA, one of 58 within the three-county region including Stearns, Wright and Sherburne counties.
Bengtson said the Veterans State WMA is in the best shape of any newly acquired WMA property he’s seen in 30 years with the DNR. Some require planting, fence removal, building demolition. On an average year, he fields about 50 queries about converting land to a WMA; only about half of those warrant even a look.
As diverse as the restored prairie is, Bengtson said, even more valuable are the acres of predominantly oak forest that help define the transition zone between big woods and prairie. The Minnesota Biological Survey designated those acres as high-quality hardwood forest.
“It’s one of the few forests of the area where you can go in and not see buckthorn,” Bengtson said.
DNR maintenance efforts likely will involve controlled burns every five to 10 years, possibly haying if the weather isn’t conducive to burning, and keeping invasive trees such as boxelders from invading the prairie. In the long term, Bengtson said, the DNR also might consider a hardwood reforestation.
The Smith family also had planted almost 10,000 native oak species and more than 1,000 aspens.
“I think (the DNR’s) goals for the land are very compatible with our goals, that is keeping it intact and diverse and trying to keep out invasive species,” Smith said. The woods are largely buckthorn-free. You won’t see garlic mustard on the land. And the cattails are native broad-leaved cattails, not the invading narrow-leaved or hybrids.
The mix of habitat is what will make the WMA a prime destination for deer hunters during both the archery and firearms seasons. Bengtson said the property also would appeal to turkey hunters, followed by waterfowl, pheasant and small-game hunters.
The DNR’s population goal for the area is five to 10 deer per square mile; Bengtson said the deer population within the WMA is probably slightly higher.
“That area has a diversity of cover that deer just dwell on. The cropland for feed. The woodlands for cover. The wetlands for cover and feed, the grasslands for getting away from the bugs,” Bengtson said. “Acorn crops are extremely important for deer and turkeys. The acorn crop is what really puts the fat on deer to help them survive the winter.”
Rivers said he expected the WMA to see heavy use from hunters this season.
“Certainly the fact that it’s on the doorstep of the Twin Cities will make it attractive to people like me who might go out there and use it,” Rivers said.
The DNR doesn’t track the number of WMA visits. Rivers said over-use usually sorts itself out as hunters seek sites with less competition.
Among the most heavily used WMAs in the state are Carlos Avery in Anoka County, Lac QuiParle in Chippewa County, Thief Lake in Marshall County and Whitewater in Winona County.
Smith, who hunted the property as a boy, said he likely will refrain from hunting the Veterans State WMA for a couple of years. Meanwhile, nonhunters are likely to visit the property, too.
“I think its value goes way beyond the recreation of hunting,” Smith said. “Hunting land is more scarce, but I think overall it’ll be enjoyed more by nonhunters than hunters.”
Even though Sandquist is focused on the hunting possibilities – the South Haven-based St. Cloud State University grad took his daughter out for a spring turkey hunt – he, too touts the possibilities of bird-watching, hiking, eventually putting in a canoe and paddling the 3 miles to the Mississippi River.
Smith said he hoped people would appreciate other elements, such as the eagles and sandhill cranes that nest within the WMA.
“I would just like them to get out there and experience it. You walked out there, you probably got the experience of the expansiveness of the area. There are places you can stand and look around and just see wild land,” Smith said. “You can really get a sense of almost solitude, of being out in the wild area.”