Fisheries Habitat Protection on Strategic North Central Minnesota Lakes: Phase II

Project Details by Fiscal Year
2017 Fiscal Year Funding Amount
Fund Source
Outdoor Heritage Fund
Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation, MN Land Trust and DNR
Recipient Type
Non-Profit Business/Entity
In Progress
Counties Affected
Crow Wing
Legal Citation / Subdivision
ML 2016, Ch. 172, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 5(d)
Appropriation Language

$1,425,000 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 cold water lakes in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, and Hubbard Counties as follows: $480,000 to Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation; and $945,000 to Minnesota Land Trust, of which up to $180,000 to Minnesota Land Trust is to establish 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.

2017 Fiscal Year Funding Amount
Other Funds Leveraged
Direct expenses
Administration costs
Number of full time equivalents funded
Proposed Measurable Outcome(s)

• Protect shoreland and restore or enhance critical habitat on wild rice lakes, shallow lakes, cold water lakes, streams and rivers, and spawning areas.

Source of Additional Funds

Landowner Donation and Local Fundrasing, Landowner Donation and local fundraising

Project Overview

600 acres of critical shorelands and diverse forest habitat will be permanently protected in strategic North Central Minnesota watersheds through targeted conservation easements and fee title acquisitions. This program will help sustain high-quality fish habitat.

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. 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 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 light of these changes. These lakes are known collectively as “tullibee refuge lakes.”

Tullibee (aka cisco) is the preferred forage fish for walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, and lake trout. They require cold, well-oxygenated waters—a condition most common in lakes with deep water and healthy 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. Deep, cold water tullibee lakes with 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—58 percent—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 rising in the region, now is the time to protect these tullibee refugee lakes and maximize the effectiveness of this fisheries habitat protection project.

Scope of Project:

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. Protection will be targeted to shoreland parcels and key private forested parcels within these lake’s watersheds. This proposal is a continuation of Phase I of the Fisheries Habitat Protection Program funded by the OHF.

MN DNR Fisheries research recommends that 75% of a lake’s watershed be in permanent protection to insure sustained water quality. Tullibee refuge lakes near this threshold will be the highest priority for protection. In addition, the DNR’s Sensitive Shoreland data will help identify priority lakes where conservation investments can be maximized. Landowner recruitment will focus on parcels in close proximity to protected land and also have a high potential to expand upland and aquatic habitat complexes. Landowner applications will be evaluated based on criteria established by the project’s technical team. To ensure the best conservation return on the state’s investment, landowner willingness to donate a portion of the easement value will be a key component of the parcel evaluation. Best available data (state and county) will be used to prioritize projects and maximize outcomes. The 2013 Minnesota DNR Fish Habitat Plan will provide strategic guidance.

Per the Fish Habitat Plan, nearshore fish habitat in lakes is largely affected by shoreline disturbance and the water quality habitat is determined by the water’s oxygen level and nutrient content. 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.

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. The 38 tullibee refuge lakes in North Central Minnesota all have less than 25% land disturbance in their watersheds and already have some degree of watershed protection.

While fisheries habitat protection is the primary focus of this project, creating strategic conservation complexes is an added benefit of permanent protection of forested, non-riparian lands within a tullibee refuge lake’s watershed. A conservation easement or fee title acquisition added adjacent to other protected land will increase the overall conservation impact by creating larger permanently protected complexes of diverse habitat that benefit many species. This project proposes to acquire a 200-acre parcel in the MNDNR Forest Stewardship “Tullibee Watershed Project” area. The DNR will have permanent ownership as a WMA. The parcel is adjacent to another 192-acre conservation easement currently in process with Phase I funding and a large complex of county-administered tax forfeited and state land. It has prime waterfowl and wildlife habitat and is a high priority parcel for the DNR. When acquired, this proposed WMA will create a five mile habitat protection corridor in a developing area of Cass County.

LLAWF’s role will continue as outlined in Phase I: targeted landowner recruitment, facilitating technical team and grant administration. MLT will provide technical support, work with landowners to draft conservation easements and provide long-term stewardship of the easements.

This project will protect approximately 600 acres:

 Approximately 400 acres of shoreline and private forest lands within tullibee refuge lakes’ watersheds will be protected through conservation easements. The project will maximize the State’s financial leverage by securing donated easements from willing landowners when possible and providing compensation based on the fair market easement value as set by an appraisal. We anticipate working with 4 to 8 Landowners to achieve our 400 acre target.

 A fee-title acquisition of 200 acres in Ponto Lake Township of Cass County to establish a WMA and create a diverse habitat

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