Fisheries Habitat Protection on Strategic North Central Minnesota Lakes

Project Details by Fiscal Year
2015 Fiscal Year Funding Amount
Fund Source
Outdoor Heritage Fund
Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation, MN Land Trust
Recipient Type
Non-Profit Business/Entity
In Progress
Start Date
July 2014
End Date
June 2018
Activity Type
Land Acquisition
Counties Affected
Crow Wing
Legal Citation / Subdivision
ML 2014, Ch. 256, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 5(b)
Appropriation Language

$2,130,000 in the second year is to the commissioner of natural resources for agreements with the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation and Minnesota Land Trust to acquire land in fee and permanent conservation easements to sustain healthy fish habitat on lakes in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, and Hubbard Counties as follows: $1,150,300 to Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation; and $979,700 to Minnesota Land Trust, of which up to $120,000 to Minnesota Land Trust is for establishing a monitoring and enforcement fund as approved in the accomplishment plan and subject to Minnesota Statutes, section 97A.056, subdivision 17. A list of proposed land acquisitions must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan.

2015 Fiscal Year Funding Amount
Other Funds Leveraged
Direct expenses
Administration costs
Number of full time equivalents funded
Proposed Measurable Outcome(s)

Forestlands are protected from development and fragmentation - Private forest parcels < 1,920 acres with a DNR-approved Forest Management Plan will be permanently protected from development and fragmentation with a conservation easement. .Increased availability and improved condition of riparian forests and other habitat corridors - Riparian forest lands under easement will maintain healthy habitat complexes for upland and aquatic species; forest cover will enhance water quality habitat for tullibee lakes. .Healthy populations of endangered, threatened, and special concern species as well as more common species - Lake Roosevelt AMA will maintain high biological integrity as already documented by MN County Biological Survey. Protected lands will provide habitat integrity for all species. .Greater public access for wildlife and outdoors-related recreation - Fee-title acquisition open to public for hunting, fishing, and other recreation. Eased properties will protect fish habitat to insure high quality fishing opportunities. .Improved aquatic habitat indicators - Tullibee and sport fish populations will be surveyed; water chemistry monitored; adequate oxygen levels will be maintained during summer; nutrient levels will remain low. .

Source of Additional Funds

Private Source

Project Overview

Approximately 500 acres of critical shoreland and forested parcels in the watersheds of strategic North Central Minnesota lakes will be permanently protected to insure availability of high quality fish habitat to sustain a healthy sport fishery in North Central Minnesota.

About the Issue

A recent survey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 32 percent of Minnesotans participated in sport fishing, contributing $2.4 billion to the state economy in 2011.  Sport fishing is a powerful economic engine in Minnesota and important to its resident’s quality of life.  Sustaining a strong angling heritage revolves largely around protecting fisheries habitat necessary for healthy sport fish populations in the near- and long-term future with resurging shoreland development pressures and looming climate changes.  This project will focus on fisheries habitat protection on lakes that have the best biological integrity for a sustained sport fishery in lights of these changes. These lakes are known collectively as “tullibee lakes.”  

Tullibee (also known as cisco) is the preferred forage fish for the production of quality walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, and lake trout.  They require cold, well-oxygenated waters, conditions most common in lakes with deep water and functioning watersheds. Tullibee populations are the “canary in the coalmine” for three significant collective threats to Minnesota’s sport fishery: shoreline development, watershed health, and climate warming.  As average summer temperatures have increased, tullibee declines have already been observed in some lakes.  Deep, cold water tullibee lakes that have high quality, well-oxygenated waters and natural, undisturbed land cover along the shorelines and within their watersheds will have the best chance to sustain tullibee populations in the face of these threats and will serve as a “refuge” for the tullibee if annual temperatures increase.  

Minnesota DNR Fisheries researchers studied tullibee lakes and designated 68 lakes in Minnesota as the primary “refuge lakes” for tullibee that need protection. Thirty-eight (38) of these refuge lakes—or 58%--are located in Hubbard, Crow Wing, Cass, and Aitkin counties. Many are also Minnesota’s premier recreation lakes.  The next 10 years are a critical window of opportunity to protect some of the “best of the best” sport fishery lakes in Minnesota. While recent economics slowed shoreland development, realtors now report a resurgence of shoreland property sales. Growth will be driven by retiring baby boomers and technology that allows landowners to live, work, and play from the same location. With land values sure to rise in the region, now is the time to protect these refuge tullibee lakes and maximize the effectiveness of this fisheries habitat protection project.

Scope of Project:

Fee title acquisition and conservation easements will be used to achieve permanent conservation of fisheries habitat on strategic parcels primarily in the watersheds of the 38 tullibee refuge lakes in Hubbard, Cass, Crow Wing, and Aitkin counties. Shoreland parcels and private forested parcels within these lake’s watersheds will be targeted for protection. A project team, including DNR Fisheries Habitat Coordinator and county SWCD, will develop a set of strategic criteria for parcel identification and use the best available data (state and county) to prioritize projects and maximize outcomes. The new 2013 Minnesota DNR Fish Habitat Plan will provide strategic guidance.

As the plan states, fish habitat in lakes is largely affected by shoreline disturbance and the quality of the water as determined by its oxygen levels and nutrient content. Shoreline disturbance reduces physical habitat (shore and aquatic vegetation, woody structure in the lake, and bottom substrates) that fish need for food production, spawning, and cover from predation.  The oxygen and nutrient levels of the water are largely determined by land disturbance in the nearshore zone and within the lake’s watershed. Run-off from disturbed land can contribute oxygen-depleting nutrients which are especially harmful to sensitive species like tullibee that need high oxygen levels.  Nutrient-laden runoff also causes algae to grow on bottom spawning substrates; the algae consume oxygen needed for survival of fish eggs. Lakeshore development decreases a lake’s ability to function as a healthy ecosystem for sport fish and their forage, not only by allowing increased runoff, but also through physical fish habitat alteration by lakeshore owners. Land conservation keeps the physical habitat intact and prevents runoff that contributes to poor water quality habitat.

 Fisheries research has shown that healthy watersheds with intact forests are fundamental to good fish habitat. If a lake’s watershed has less than 25% land disturbance and 75% or more of its landscape remains forested and permanently protected, the lake has a high probability of sustaining a healthy lake ecosystem to support fish. The undisturbed forest cover allows water to infiltrate into the ground rather than running off directly to the lake. Projects that can simultaneously reduce shoreline development and watershed disturbances can yield the greatest conservation return.  The 38 refuge tullibee lakes in North Central Minnesota all have less than 25% land disturbance in their watersheds and already have some degree of watershed protection. With strategic effort, it is feasible to reach permanent 75% watershed protection for many of these refuge tullibee lakes.  

 This project will protect 3-4 miles of critical shoreland and approximately 500 acres.  It includes:

*A fee-title acquisition of 105 acres on Woods Bay of Lake Roosevelt, a target tullibee lake. The DNR will have permanent ownership as an Aquatic Management Area; it is a DNR acqusition priority. One+ mile of sensitive shoreland will be protected and 105 acres open to the public for hunting, fishing, and other recreation. Wood’s Bay is the prime spawning area for recently stocked muskie.  The property is listed on the Minnesota County Biological Survey because of its high biological significance and intact old growth forest canopy. It is under immediate threat of development to settle a family estate.  

*Use of conservation easements to protect shoreland zones on refuge tullibee lakes and large-tract private forest lands within the refuge lakes’ watersheds to achieve permanent habitat protection on approximately 400 acres.  The project will maximize the State’s financial leverage by securing fully donated conservation easements where possible and paying approximately 50% of easement value for most acquired easements.

Investing now in strategic fish habitat protection along the shores and within the watersheds of refuge tullibee lakes and other critical shorelands will insure a healthy, resilient sport fishery for Minnesota.


Project Manager
First Name
Last Name
Organization Name
Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation
Street Address
PO Box 455
Zip Code
(218) 675-5773