Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project – Phase 3
$4,610,000 in the second year is to the commissioner of natural resources for an agreement with The Nature Conservancy to acquire native prairie and savanna and restore and enhance grasslands and savanna. A list of proposed land acquisitions must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan. Annual income statements and balance sheets for income and expenses from land acquired with this appropriation must be submitted to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council no later than 180 days following the close of The Nature Conservancy's fiscal year.
This phase resulted in a total of 1,425 acres of wetlands and prairies protected in fee, 22,298 acres of wetlands and prairies enhanced, and 110 acres of wetlands and prairies restored.
The Nature Conservancy, private land donation
The goals for this project were to: protect 1,200 acres native prairie/wetland/savanna; restore 250 acres prairie/wetland; enhance 6,000 acres grassland/savanna with fire, invasive species removal, and grazing; and continue a new prairie conservation model. This phase resulted in a total of 1,425 acres protected, 22,298 acres enhanced, and 110 acres restored. When combined with phases 1 and 2 of the Prairie Recovery Program we have cumulatively protected 4,070 acres, enhanced 58,134 acres and restored 314 acres using OHF funds. We will continue to implement subsequent phases toward meeting the conservation goals described in the MN Prairie Conservation Plan.
1. Scope of work: With the requested funding, and with other funds leveraged by this money and brought by other partners, the following actions and outcomes were acheived.
“Phase 3” built upon the success of the MN Prairie Recovery Project Phase 1 and 2 by continuing and expanding enhancement work in 4 focal areas and protection in 5 areas. Project partners, primarily through our participation in Prairie Plan Local Technical teams, helped us to prioritize and refine guidelines for protection, enhancement and restoration activities within priority landscapes. The Prairie Recovery Program utilizes a collaborative model for conservation and we regularly consult and work with a variety of entities including state and federal agencies, other conservation nonprofits, agricultural producer groups and local governments.
1,425 acres of existing and restorable grassland, prairie pothole complex, and savanna was permanently protected within prairie core and corridor areas as identified in the MN Prairie Conservation Plan 2010. Lands will be held by The Nature Conservancy, subject to a recorded notice of funding restrictions pursuant to the grant with the MN DNR. All lands acquired in fee are FULLY open to hunting and fishing per state of Minnesota regulations. Basic developments have been, and will continue to be, implemented (boundary signage, habitat improvement, wetland restoration). Protection efforts were coordinated with other partner protection programs (e.g., DNR Wildlife Management Area and Prairie Bank programs), once again primarily through interactions through Local Technical Teams.
A separate and discrete internal fund has been established by The Nature Conservancy to cover ongoing land-management costs. Income generated by agricultural leases (grazing, haying, native seed harvest, and/or cropping) are held in this account and used to pay for property taxes and ongoing management costs.
110 acres of cropland were restored to diverse, local-ecotype grassland or grassland/wetland complex. Preference was given to local producers and contractors for provision of seed and establishment of prairies to promote creation of local conservation-oriented businesses.
22,298 acres of grassland complex were enhanced on public lands and those purchased with OHF funds and held by the Conservancy (“protected conservation lands”) to increase native species diversity and improve critical wildlife habitat. Management techniques included prescribed fire (61 projects totalling 15,016 acres), removal of woody vegetation (60 projects for 1,678 acres), and control of exotic species (83 projects - 5,514 acres). Much of this work was accomplished by private vendors through contracts. We also extensively used Conservation Corps of Minnesota (CCM) crews and seasonal staff employed directly by TNC.
On-the-ground Conservancy staff provided by this grant were co-located in DNR or Fish and Wildlife Service offices and helped form and lead local coordination and implementation teams; identified protection, restoration and enhancement needs and opportunities within the focus areas; worked with DNR and FWS staff to delineate conservation projects on public lands; coordinated deployment of contract and staff resources to protected conservation lands; contacted and worked with private landowners to coordinate agricultural activities/leases on appropriate protected conservation lands (e.g., haying, grazing, cropping in advance of restoration); educated lessees on appropriate conservation grazing/haying practices; supervised management of lands acquired above; planned and conducted prescribed burns; and other activities related to prairie conservation in the focus areas.
Contracts were let to provide a high level of enhancement activities to new and existing protected conservation lands, greatly expanding current capacity. These activities greatly improved the habitat value of public lands that were not receiving adequate management treatment, while simultaneously providing jobs for CCM and local businesses. Activities included removal of undesirable woody vegetation, identification and treatment of invasive species infestations, removal of abandoned fences and/or other structures, and related restoration/enhancement activities.
To ensure goals and outcomes are consistently achieved across all 4 project areas, the project coordinator oversaw implementation of the above activities and provided administrative support for budget monitoring and reporting. Significant marketing and media outreach was conducted by the Conservancy to highlight the goals and accomplishments of the project to local and statewide constituents, as well as elected officials. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/…
Temporary seasonal crews were employed by the Conservancy to provide additional capacity for public land management during critical periods like spring burn season. These crews helped create flexibility for enhancement projects and maximized the ability of specialized skilled personnel like burn bosses to increase the number of acres annually enhanced.
2. How priorities were set: Prioritization and prioritization criteria vary with the conservation tactic being employed (i.e., protection, restoration, enhancement). Focus areas were selected where there was overlap with MN County Biological Survey prairie “focus areas” and TNC priority areas. Each of the 4 project locations directly correlate to core areas identified in the 2010 MN Prairie Conservation Plan. Because this project is a collaborative effort involving multiple partners, tactical priorities and criteria were established at both the state and local level by respective coordinating groups. criteria for each of these tactics include:
a. Protection: location/proximity to other habitats, location/proximity to other protected lands, presence of rare/endangered species, imminence of conversion, ability to support grazing, size, cost, and likelihood for leveraged funding. A more robust listing of selection criteria can be provided upon request.
b. Restoration: feasibility/likelihood of success, location, cost, availability of seed, and availability of restoration technical assistance, proximity to other habitats, and their ability to buffer or increase the conservation value of other protected lands.
c. Enhancement: urgency/time since last enhancement, feasibility of success, accessibility, availability of enhancement technical assistance, cost, proximity to other habitats and partnership benefits.
3. Urgency and opportunity of this proposal: Only about 1% of Minnesota’s original native prairie still remains (about 235,000 acres of an original 1.8 million), and the remnants are still being destroyed and degraded. Less than half of those 235,000 acres are currently protected from conversion, and management capacity is unable to address needs on protected lands. Additionally, more than 90% of the original prairie pothole wetlands in the western part of the state have also been lost. These losses threaten the viability of Minnesota’s prairie/wetland wildlife and recreational opportunities that depend upon them. Further, huge strides that have been made in supplementing habitat with the Conservation Reserve Program are in imminent danger of being lost as contracts expire. Conservationists have a narrow window of opportunity to protect remaining native grasslands, wetlands and other habitats, restore and protect supplemental grasslands and wetlands, and accelerate enhancement efforts to ensure these habitats are providing optimal value to animals and people. This proposal accelerated an initiative begun in 2010.
4. Stakeholder involvement and/or opposition: This Phase continues an initiative begun with OHF funding in 2010. We have worked very closely with conservation interests in developing and maintaining this initiative and will continue close collaboration among partners. Via past and ongoing projects, we are also coordinating with other stakeholders (e.g., cattlemen’s associations, Land Stewardship Project, county boards), and will continue to seek opportunities to expand that coordination. Points of opposition that have risen to date include: perceived loss of tax revenues, philosophical opposition to public land ownership, and lack of understanding of processes (i.e. prescribed fire) necessary for long-term prairie system health. To address these concerns we have been actively engaged with county boards and other local units of government, local agricultural producers and groups, and local communities. We anticipate continuing to build these relationships in each of the four project areas.
This project implements strategies identified in at least 6 plans, as identified below.
1. The 2010 MN Prairie Conservation Plan (Plan) identifies three distinct strategies and opportunities for targeting protection, restoration, and enhancement of Minnesota’s prairie and grassland systems. The plan recommends work in “Core Areas” defined as large landscapes that retain some features of functioning prairie systems. Using MN County Biological Survey data and USFWS Habitat Assessment, Populations and Evaluation Team (HAPET)
2. MN Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan. The strategic framework of this plan has 5 elements in its “Habitat” section: integrated planning, critical land protection, land and water restoration and protection, (identification of) sustainable practices, and (provision of) economic incentives for sustainable practices. Further, while the plan does not go into great detail with respect to prairie conservation, it clearly states that “protection of priority land habitats” is a vital practice, and prairies clearly fall here. The Plan identifies 36 distinct prairie core areas across the western third of the state. Collectively these core landscapes contain 71% of the state’s remaining native prairie. All 4 of the project focus areas directly correlate with one or more of these core areas.
3. Tomorrow’s Habitat for the Wild and Rare. The primary objective identified in the MN DNR’s plan is to “stabilize and increase populations of “species in greatest conservation need (SGCN)”. In the prairie regions of Minnesota, strategies to achieve this goal include:
a. Support incentives that avoid conversion of grasslands into row crops where SGCN occur.
b. Use mowing, cutting woody vegetation, prescribed fire, or careful use of herbicides to prevent the invasion of grasslands by trees and shrubs.
c. Lengthen the cutting rotations for hay; avoid early-season mowing.
d. Use light to moderate, rotational grazing programs to benefit SGCN
e. Prevent fragmentation of grassland habitat.
f. Avoid soil compaction in areas occupied by mammal SGCN.
g. Increase native plant species components.
h. Control spread of invasive species to adjacent native-dominated sites.
This project proposes to address all but item “f” above.
4. The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregional Plan (1998). This plan identifies key conservation targets, geographic emphasis areas, threats to native plant and animal communities, and key strategies to mitigate these threats. The proposal is a solid step in the implementation of this plan. Also, as a step-down from the NTP Ecoregion Plan, the Chapter has completed local level planning (Conservation Action Planning) for smaller geographic units that correspond with the focus areas. Goals within these focus areas are very explicit in identifying conservation targets and actions and are consistent with the activities contained in this proposal.
5. DNR’s Pheasant Plan. This proposal is in full support of the Pheasant Plan goal to add 1.5 million acres of undisturbed grassland to the state by 2025.
6. DNR’s Waterfowl Plan. This proposal is in full support of the state Long-range Duck Recovery Plan to add 2 million acres of habitat to the state by 2025. It also utilizes establishment of complexes, as per the plan, to achieve multiple conservation synergies and benefits.
This plan helps fulfill multiple priorities specified by the LSOHC “Prairie Section Vision”, including permanent protection of existing prairies and wetlands, restoration of prairie and wetland habitats, building grassland/wetland complexes in blocks sufficient to increase migratory breeding bird success, enhancement of public lands for game species and other species of conservation need, and protection of watersheds of shallow lakes. Specifically, this proposal addresses “Prairie Section Strategies” 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 directly.