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Taking care of what we've got

A focus on habitat improvement is benefiting public lands in Kandiyohi County. A partnership of Pheasants Forever and state and federal agencies is leveraging Clean Water and Land and Legacy Amendment funding sources to improve our lands.

WILLMAR — The spring green-up is right around the corner now, and there will be no better place to appreciate it than on public lands in Kandiyohi County.

Year-by-year, these lands are sporting an increasingly colorful and diverse mix of grasses and flowers. It comes in place of the once familiar, but drab carpet of brome grass and alfalfa that was the norm of early conservation work.

A partnership including Pheasants Forever, the county, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has kept to a goal of upgrading habitat on public lands. It's all part of an underlying philosophy of taking care of our lands.

“It’s just like any other farmer or anybody else managing their lands,” said Alex Nelson , of New London, restoration manager for Minnesota lands with Pheasants Forever. Kandiyohi County, he said, has been one of the most effective at leveraging the Expedited Conservation and Conservation Partnership Legacy grants and other funding sources made possible by the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment for habitat improvements.

In just the last three years, $40,000 of locally raised dollars were leveraged into $440,000 and used to provide diverse seedings on public lands.

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Another $427,000 has been committed to tree removal on 3,380 acres of prairie lands.

These efforts come on top of the ongoing work by the DNR and US Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct prescribed burns and other management practices.

Nelson said the Land and Legacy Amendment has allowed Pheasants Forever chapters to get the most for their local money.

The Kandiyohi County chapter 2 , recognized by Pheasants Forever with its National Habitat Award in 2019, commits $20,000 a year of its unrestricted funds towards projects to upgrade and enhance habitat. Chapter President Kevin Ochsendorf said the local members have been very supportive of leveraging the local funds for habitat work. Some of the funding sources will match the local dollars by two-to-one to as much as 20-to-one ratios in some cases, he pointed out.

But he said the local support also reflects what members know: “They understand the more we can do to have really good grass out there, you know you are going to have the birds then.”

It’s not just pheasants we’re talking about. Nelson and Scott Glup, director for the Litchfield District of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , said the science behind conservation work today has come a long way from the years when many of the public lands in the county were acquired. Originally, a mix of brome grass and alfalfa with intermediate wheat was planted to provide nesting cover and habitat for game species.

It provides decent habitat, along with improved water quality and other benefits, but it's not what you'd call "primo" habitat, he acknowledged.

Today, he said, we know that a mix of native grasses and flowers produce a habitat that benefits pollinators and a greater diversity of wildlife. This is the focus of the upgrades now taking place.

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It’s increasingly important. We’ve lost roughly 98 percent of the original prairie in Minnesota and with it, many of the species dependent on it. The Minnesota breeding bird survey has documented a corresponding 98 percent decline in western meadowlarks in the last 50 years, Glup noted.

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He said many do not realize the positive impact that the Clean Water and Land and Legacy Amendment is making possible on our existing public lands. Previously, the Litchfield USFWS district had the resources to commit itself to one project a year for habitat enhancement. These projects take a lot of staff time and are usually conducted over two to three years. Thanks to the new funding sources, and especially, the partnership with Pheasants Forever and others, he recently signed off on plans for nine projects now in the works throughout the district.

Four of those projects are located in Kandiyohi County, in good measure a result of the local Pheasant Forever chapter’s commitment to habitat and land management.

Oschendorf said the habitat projects usually sell themselves given a year or two. Everyone can appreciate the appearance of the lands seeded to a diverse prairie mix, as well as the improved wildlife numbers that result. He also likes the forward thinking it represents. The improved habitat sets the stage for good hunting for people down the road as well, he explained.

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