Accelerating the USFWS Habitat Conservation Easement Program - Phase I
$2,960,000 the second year is to the commissioner
of natural resources for an agreement with Ducks
Unlimited, in cooperation with Pheasants Forever
and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,
to acquire permanent conservation “working
land” easements and to restore wetlands and
prairie grasslands. Of this amount, $2,000,000 is
to Ducks Unlimited and $960,000 is to Pheasants
Forever. A list of proposed acquisitions must be
provided as part of the required accomplishment
Wetland and upland complexes will consist of native prairies, restored prairies, quality grasslands, and restored shallow lakes and wetlands - USFWS habitat easements will add restored and protected grassland and small wetland acres to augment existing public lands and other permanent easements to create prairie-wetland complexes with a more diverse mix of habitats and conservation options for private landowners. The measure of success will be the number of functioning prairie wetland complexes that provide adequate wetland and grassland acres within a landscape. This is a long-term, programmatic landscape conservation effort that will take time to achieve..Core areas protected with highly biologically diverse wetlands and plant communities, including native prairie, Big Woods, and oak savanna - USFWS conservation easements will complement existing land protection options to help keep prairie grasslands with small wetlands on the landscape to buffer core areas of native prairie and oak savanna, thereby increasing the diversity of wetlands and plant communities and giving private landowners a working lands conservation option from which to choose, including lands under soon to expire CRP contracts. Wetlands and grasslands that are grazed will have an improved functional wildlife habitat benefit due to periodic disturbance of large animals, and is very compatible with oak savanna habitats..Expiring CRP lands are permanently protected - This outcome will be measured by the sheer number of expiring CRP acres that will be protected through USFWS easements, and the protected grassland and wetland habitat that will not be subject to future conversion to intensive row crop agriculture. By offering private landowners a working lands conservation easement option, landowners in need of an annual income stream from their land will be incentivized to keep grasslands intact and restore wetlands..
This Phase 1 partnership will accelerate USFWS wildlife habitat easements to restore and protect 720 acres of private grasslands and pothole wetlands in west-central Minnesota. These "working land" conservation easements allow delayed haying and grazing while protecting restored wetlands and prairie grasslands for nesting ducks, pheasants, and other wildlife. By restoring and protecting grassland and wetland habitat that also allows for continued landowner use of these working private lands, USFWS habitat easements fill an important prairie landscape conservation niche that complements other more restrictive easements and fee-title public lands, and adds grassland to buffer rare intact native prairie nearby.
Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Pheasants Forever (PF) will purchase wildlife habitat conservation easements on private land in west-central Minnesota using federally-approved conservation easement language and payment rates, restore drained wetlands and cropland back to prairie grassland, and transfer the easements to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) for long-term perpetual monitoring and enforcement. DU will purchase and hold easements through it's Wetlands America Trust (WAT), DU’s supporting land-holding fiduciary organization, of which DU is the sole corporate member. By purchasing easements and restoring grasslands and wetlands for USFWS with OHF support, DU and PF will effectively accelerate the rate at which USFWS can protect grassland and wetlands in key focus landscapes in which there are also many state and federal wildlife lands owned and managed in fee-title, and other lands protected by more restrictive conservation easements too. These are some of the most productive landscapes in the state for breeding waterfowl and other prairie wildlife including pheasants, and these private working land conservation easements complement other federal, state, and private conservation easement options presented to landowners. USFWS habitat conservation easements not only include protection measures that prevent wetland and prairie conversion (along with land development and subdivision), but importantly, they also secure rights to restore wetlands and prairie grassland where feasible too - which is the primary purpose of this easement program funding request. DU/PF will rely on referrals and prioritization of parcels from USFWS, and will offer federally-approved easement payments, but will perform all other landowner negotiations, boundary survey, phase 1 environmental review, title review, and other legal tasks, and purchase the easement for USFWS. DU and PF will restore prairie and wetlands on lands eased using the same state OHF grant funds used to purchase easements as required by the LSOHC. DU/PF will also pay for the restoration of eased lands too in partnership with the USFWS, and with technical guidance from their private lands biologists. DU engineers will survey/design larger wetland restorations, and manage construction by private firms. USFWS "Habitat Easements" have been used here for over two decades, and are designed to provide a habitat protection conservation tool to complement public lands habitat complexes such as federal Waterfowl Production Areas and state Wildlife Management Areas, by keeping privately owned restored grassland and wetland habitat intact and on county tax rolls while allowing for working use of the land. These easements provide landowners with the option of either delayed haying (after July 15) or both grazing and delayed haying, which results in adequate habitat for wetland and upland nesting birds and a working land use option that appeals to some private landowners. Importantly, these working land easements also help manage plant succession on their land, which is critical to preventing the encroachment of volunteer trees and invasive plant species. Well-managed grazing, delayed haying, and USFWS prescribed fire also benefits those grassland bird species that prefer more open prairie habitats, such as pintail ducks, marbled godwits, snipe, and many other prairie species.