Fisheries Habitat Protection on Strategic North Central Minnesota Lakes
$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.
A total of 765 acres and 8.9 miles of critical shoreland and forest habitat in the watersheds of strategic North Central Minnesota lakes have been protected through the completion of 5 conservation easements and 1 fee title acquisition. The grant leveraged $1,119,000 through landowner donation of easement and fee value and other sources.
Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation and the Minnesota Land Trust collectively protected 765 acres and 8.9 miles of critical shoreland and forest habitat in the watersheds of strategic North Central Minnesota lakes through the completion of 5 conservation easements and 1 fee title acquisition. Acreage protection outcomes exceeded that proposed by 151%; shoreland protected exceeded that proposed by 297%. The grant leveraged $1,119,000 through landowner donation of easement and fee value and other sources, exceeding goals by 134%.
The primary goal of this program was to ensure protection of coldwater fisheries associated with tullibee refuge lakes in north-central Minnesota. These lakes have the best biological integrity necessary for sustaining a sport fishery in the face of development and a changing climate.
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 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.
The program focused on land protection via fee title and conservation easement acquisition within the watersheds of 38 tullibee refuge lakes in Hubbard, Cass, Crow Wing, and Aitkin counties. A project team, including the MN DNR Fisheries Habitat Coordinator and county SWCDs, prioritized projects to maximize outcomes.
Through the Fisheries Habitat Protection on Strategic North Central Minnesota Lakes - Phase I grant, project partners Northern Waters Land Trust (formerly Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation) and Minnesota Land Trust exceeded proposed goals, including:
• Protection of 765 acres of high quality habitat within priority Tullibee watersheds including both in fee (1 property of 105 acres) and via conservation easements (5 properties over 662 acres). Together, these properties protected 8.9 miles of shoreland. Project sheets summarizing each of these projects have been uploaded as part of this final report.
• Grant outcomes exceed by 151% the total acres and by 297% the total amount of shoreland proposed for protection under this grant.
• The $2,130,000 grant leveraged $1,014,000 in easement value and $105,000 in fee value donated by landowners participating in the program, and raised through other sources. This amount exceeds that proposed by 127%.
Protected Properties include:
1. Woods Bay, Lake Roosevelt – a 105-acre fee purchase on Woods Bay in Lake Roosevelt (a tullibee refuge lake) that protects high quality habitat including intact old growth forest and the adjacent prime muskie spawning area. The property has been transferred to the MN DNR and is managed as the Roosevelt Lake State Aquatic Management Area.
2. Whitefish Lake (Haddorff) – a 215-acre easement protecting a stunning stretch of natural habitat and 3,200 feet of shoreline along Whitefish Lake. The property also encompasses nearly all of Kutil Lake and its outflow into Whitefish Lake.
3. Washburn Lake (Gouze) – a 23-acre easement protecting an important natural habitat corridor between Washburn Lake and Lake George. The easement protects extensive shoreland on both lakes and along Saggett Brook. Washburn Lake is a tullibee refuge lake.
4. Leech Lake (Arnold) – a 45-acre easement protecting the southern tip of Minnesota Island in Leech Lake’s Steamboat Bay. The property contains abundant wetlands interspersed with small sandy and often forested ridges; wild rice beds are common.
5. Borden Lake (Lavender Springs) – a 105-acre easement protecting heavily forested land with scattered wetlands at the headwaters of Black Bear Creek, a state-designated trout stream and tributary to Borden Lake (a tulibee refuge lake).
6. Ten Mile Lake (Deer Lodge, LLC) – A 61-acre easement protecting forests and extensive shoreland wetlands adjacent to Ten Mile Lake, a tulibee refuge lake.
In addition, project partners established important supporting procedures and practices that have played an essential part in sustaining the Fisheries Habitat Protection program through this and subsequent phases of funding. These included:
• NWLT created its Clean Water, Critical Habitat program. This program was used to promote and educate landowners on the benefits of conservation easements and acquisitions, greatly facilitating the success achieved through our Phase 1 grant.
• NWLT engaged a University of Minnesota GIS graduate student through the CURA-CAP program to create priority parcel maps for all tullibee refuge lakes in Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, and Aitkin counties. The associated information was used to develop a mailing list used to promote the program to over 1100 landowners and to seek applicants interested in protecting their lands through conservation easements.
• NWLT and MLT developed and launched an RFP process (modeled after a “reverse bid” approach pioneered by St. John’s University and MLT in the Avon Hills) to seek applications from interested landowners and encourage competition for limited funds.
• Criteria for prioritizing parcels (including parcel size, shoreline length, sensitive shoreline designation, wetland area, known aquatic and wildlife habit areas, lake inlets and outlets, and adjacency to public and conservation lands) were established to evaluate prospective projects submitted by interested landowners. An interagency technical team was created to review and score applications to make final project selections. Technical team members represent staff from pertinent SWCD’s, Counties, DNR Fisheries and Wildlife, MLT, and NWLT.
• A scoresheet to assist in project selection was developed, along with associated criteria for scoring projects. GIS analyses using existing data, coupled with information stemming from field visits to potential projects, were used to score the projects. This scoring framework has evolved over time as more data has become available and the methodologies tweaked to better fit local circumstances, resulting in a more sophisticated and inclusive system.
• Outreach to landowners through a local organization has proven invaluable in building landowner recognition of the program and overall success. NWLT maintained contact with landowners—answering questions, publishing email newsletters, making site visits, and, if our program didn’t fit their needs, directing them to other conservation programs sponsored by DNR or SWCD’s.