Looking for ways to protect WMAs

WILLMAR -- Imagine a backyard overlooking acres of colorful, native grasses and patches of woodlands, a place where it's possible to watch deer as they browse or catch a glimpse of an eagle as it soars above.

WILLMAR -- Imagine a backyard overlooking acres of colorful, native grasses and patches of woodlands, a place where it's possible to watch deer as they browse or catch a glimpse of an eagle as it soars above.

That describes the view made possible by many of Minnesota's 1,380 Wildlife Management Areas.

It's also why they are becoming attractive targets for developers.

Residential encroachment into rural areas of the state is raising concerns about possible conflicts with the state's WMAs. There are houses built near the boundaries of some WMAs.

Others, established years ago on the outskirts or edges of communities, are now being swallowed as the towns grow around them.


Residential encroachment of the state's WMAs is an issue a working group is raising this weekend in St. Cloud at the Department of Natural Resource's annual citizens' roundtable discussions, according to Matt Holland, a member of the group. Holland, of New London, represents Pheasants Forever. The organization and its members are heavily invested in both acquiring land for Wildlife Management Areas, and in helping manage them once established, he noted.

The state's WMAs exist to provide wildlife habitat, game, hunting and other recreational opportunities, said Holland. They continue to provide habitat and open space when surrounded by residences, but the recreational values change. Should the state continue to keep these WMAs, or should it sell them and use the proceeds to create others?

Holland said encroachment issues have led DNR wildlife officials to recommend either selling or swapping three WMAs, and another three are being looked at for similar reasons.

All are located in the metropolitan counties, where the encroachment issue is coming to the forefront due to development. But Holland said encroachment is something that hunters in rural areas need to pay attention to as well. All of the same elements -- population growth and residential sprawl -- are at work here as well.

Kandiyohi County's population topped 41,000 in 2000 and the county continues to lead the area in growth. If the growth rate of the last few decades continues, the county will add 5,608 residents by 2020. It could welcome as many as 8,412 new residents if the pace quickens, according to the county's comprehensive plan.

A noticeable portion of that growth is occurring in the countryside, mainly in the northern half of the county. New London Township saw a 35 percent increase in the number of households during the last 30 years.

Kandiyohi County has not had any direct conflict with residential encroachment on its Wildlife Management Areas, at least not yet. Gary Geer, zoning administrator, said residential growth in rural and agricultural areas led to an ordinance that now limits housing density: No more than four houses are allowed per 40 acres. The rule has helped avoid some of the housing conflicts with public wild lands being experienced in the metropolitan counties.

Geer said concern about the potential for conflicts with WMAs in the county has already been raised at one hearing. One suggestion included requiring a setback to keep houses from being built on the boundaries of WMAs.


There are WMAs in the state where signs inside their boundaries advise hunters that they are within 500 feet of a residence and should not discharge their firearms, said Jeff Miller, assistant wildlife manager with the DNR in Willmar.

Miller said Kandiyohi County is blessed with an enviable mix of public lands such as Sibley State Park, the Glacial Lakes recreational trail, and a variety of Wildlife Management Areas and Waterfowl Production Areas.

As the county's population grows, these Wildlife Management Areas are seeing increasing pressure, he pointed out.

It's not just the threat of residential encroachment that concerns him. Miller said the county's WMAs are seeing intense usage. At times, the pressure on them is "extreme," he said. That's especially evident during the deer firearms season and early weeks of the pheasant season.

Heavily-trodden footpaths from parking areas offer evidence of the many pheasant hunters who stalk these lands. There were many weekends this fall when one group of pheasant hunters no more than pulled out of the parking lot when another pulled in, said Miller.

He is also concerned about the residential expansion in rural areas. Residential development in the Carlson Lake area west of Spicer is pressing close to a waterfowl production area. The Oakwood Manor housing development near County Road 10 will also put new residences near a relatively large tract of public land.

The state Legislature in 2006 earmarked $14 million in bond funds to expand the state's WMAs. Thanks to the funding, Miller is currently in working on land acquisitions to create two new WMAs in the county.

He said the cost for acquiring land continues to grow, and not just because an improved agricultural economy and interest in building houses in rural areas is raising land values. There is also a marked trend for private individuals to buy up land for hunting as well.


"There's competition out there, no doubt about it,'' said Miller.

Holland said the working group is still early in its work, but it hopes to offer recommendations that can help protect the state's public lands and preserve their important role for the state's hunters.

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