Accelerated Prairie Restoration and Enhancement on DNR Lands, Phase 3
$1,652,000 the first year is to the commissioner of natural resources to accelerate the restoration and enhancement on wildlife management areas, scientific and natural areas, and land under native prairie bank easements.
Enhance 20,600 acres of prairie
This appropriation funded 283 projects totaling 21,953 acres. The two largest types of enhancement were 112 woody removal projects totaling 10,160 acres and 134 prescribed burns totaling 10,082 acres. Additionally, we seeded 30 sites totaling 1386 acres, put in infrastructure for conservation grazing of 236 acres on 3 sites, conducted 3 oak savanna enhancements totaling 42 acres, and treated 47 acres of invasive species on 2 sites.
This was a shared appropriation between the Fish & Wildlife (FAW) and the Ecological & Water Resources (EWR) Divisions within the DNR. Both Divisions requested priority grassland projects from field staff across the state. When this appropriation was funded, the Prairie Plan and other large-scale prairie-focused strategic plans were still in their infancy. Parcels on the initial parcel list included in the funding request were developed primarily using priorities developed at the regional and areas levels by Area Wildlife Managers and SNA field staff. The parcel list changed substantially from the time of the request as the project went on because of several factors, including: 1) one of the core strengths of the Roving Crew is their flexibility to move quickly on a priority habitat enhancement opportunity, and this often meant addressing parcels that met the appropriation’s purpose, but not on the parcel list; 2) given the nature and purpose of the Roving Crew, parcels/projects done by them were not on the original list, but were added upon completion; and 3) site condition and weather help determine whether we can work on a given project on a given day, and we do our best to find alternate parcels of similar value/priority, even if not on the original parcel list, to maximize efficiency. Especially when it comes to weather issues (usually ‘too wet’), often large areas affected. The flexibility of the Roving Crew allowed them to do same enhancement work, but on WMAs in nearby counties not as affected by the weather. For all these reasons, we added a number of sites in counties not originally included in the parcel list. Although it can make reporting challenging, we feel this dynamic flexibility is one of the strengths of our Roving Crews and our contracting process.
While many appropriations highlight specific projects, “what” they did, we feel the strength of this appropriation is in the cumulative effect of many small projects and “how” we did it. Specifically, we did a lot of this work by developing the Region 4 (Southern) DNR Roving Crew.
This crew is located at Lac Qui Parle. As part of developing a new crew, office and shop space had to be developed, crews hired, and those crews needed to be equipped. That was followed by a steep learning curve as the crew coalesced and began working on projects. These crews only do habitat work. We try to minimize the time spent with paperwork, office work, budgets, etc, so that they can fully devote their time to ‘boots on the ground’ habitat enhancement projects.
At the same time, there were some inclement weather patterns during these years that limited the activities of the crews during some periods. Even given those unavoidable issues, the appropriation exceeded its target acres. It is our assessment that these initial years are the slowest and therefore least productive. This crew, as well as the other two, are all functioning as highly efficient teams.
The rest of the work was done with contractors, which stimulates local rural economies.
According to the research literature, we actually underestimating the acres enhanced, especially as it relates to woody removal projects. Numerous studies show it’s not just the area ‘under the trees’ that impact grassland birds, but the area around the woody vegetation. Some species simply won’t nest near woody cover and other studies show high nest predation (gamebird) or brood parasitism (songbirds) rates near woody cover. By removing even a few trees from the center of a grassland, we are actually enhancing the entire area. Snyder (1984) found that pheasant nest success double greater than 600 meters from a tree. That means for every tree, or clump of trees, removed we are effectively enhancing nesting success in the surrounding 280 acres of grassland.
Although this appropriation focused on the Roving Crew, we can highlight a couple projects as small examples of all the work that we are proud of.
Glenflur WMA – Cottonwood County. This 165 acre tree removal project substantially opened up this tract. This WMA is part of the Cottonwood River Prairie Core Area and contains areas of unbroken prairie. This site had not experienced significance disturbance, other than heavy grazing, in several decades. A lack of disturbance had allowed tree succession to begin to invade. Prairie Bush Clover and Loggerhead Shrike are SGCN noted in this area.
Lac qui Parle WMA-Nygard Tract – Swift County. This tract is part of the larger Chippewa Prairie on the Lac qui Parle WMA and is part of a Prairie Plan Core Area. This remnant prairie had been moderately grazed and had not seen disturbance by fire in decades. Woody encroachment was beginning to take hold prior to this project. Through a combination of tree removal, prescribed burning and grazing this site is now in good condition with sightings of several native prairie species that were suppressed due to lack of disturbance from fire. This area has recent sightings of Marbled Godwits, Slender Milk Vetch, Loggerhead Shrike and Upland Sandpipers.
The SNA Program was able to start a series of contracted woody removal projects at Swede’s Forest SNA. Swede’s Forest is home to a large population of the rare five-lined skink. The management being completed here is focused on removal of encroaching red cedar and invasive buckthorn, improving habitat not only for the five-lined skink but also for the multiple other wildlife species that call this site home.
Additionally, SNA staff, with support of CCM, were able to conduct a 109 acre prescribed burn at Prairie Coteau SNA. Prairie Coteau SNA is one of the most important and stunning prairies in southwestern Minnesota. This prescribed burn helped improve habitat for grassland gamebird species found on the site in addition to the rare non-game species.
It was difficult to assign an exact dollar figure to each person and each project. What I did was take the total personnel budget, identify the ratio of FTE/years, and scale the personnel budget to that ratio. I used the same approach on the parcel list. I took the total budget and total acres, identified percentage of acres for each project relative to the acre total, and assigned the ratio of funds to that project.