Accelerating the USFWS Habitat Conservation Easement Program - Phase III
This Phase 3 partnership will accelerate USFWS wildlife habitat easements to protect and restore 1,400 acres of private grasslands and pothole wetlands in west-central Minnesota, and restore an additional 140 prairie-wetland acres. 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 while allowing 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 buffers existing habitats.
Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Pheasants Forever (PF) will purchase, record, and transfer wildlife habitat conservation easements to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) for long-term perpetual monitoring and enforcement in west-central Minnesota using federally-approved USFWS habitat conservation easement language and federal payment rates. DU and PF will restore drained wetlands and cropland back to prairie grassland. 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. 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 available to landowners.
USFWS habitat conservation easements not only include protection measures that prevent wetland/prairie conversion and land development/subdivision, but importantly, they also secure rights to restore wetlands and prairie grassland where feasible too - which is the primary purpose of this OHF easement program. DU/PF will help USFWS conduct landowner outreach, prioritize offers of federally-approved easement payments, and conduct landowner negotiations, boundary survey, environmental review, title review, and other legal tasks, and purchase the easement for USFWS. DU/PF will protect prairie and wetlands via easements we purchase (and restore where needed), record, and transfer to USFWS. DU/PF will also use OHF grant funds to restore additional prairie and wetland acres on land eased directly by USFWS as leverage. DU/PF will restore eased lands in partnership with the USFWS with technical guidance from their private lands biologists. DU engineers will survey/design larger complex wetland restorations, and manage restoration contracts to private earth-moving 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 northern pintail, marbled godwit, snipe, and many other prairie species.
$4,752,000 the first 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 lands easements and to restore wetlands and prairie grasslands. Of this amount, $3,153,000 is to Ducks Unlimited and $1,599,000 is to Pheasants Forever. A list of proposed acquisitions and restorations must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan.
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.
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
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service