Northeastern Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Habitat Partnership
$3,150,000 in the second year is to the commissioner of natural resources for an agreement with Pheasants Forever in cooperation with the Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society to acquire and enhance lands in Aitkin, Carlton, Kanabec, Pine, and St. Louis Counties for wildlife management area purposes under Minnesota Statutes, section 86A.05, subdivision 8. Lands acquired with this appropriation may not be used for emergency haying and grazing in response to federal or state disaster declarations. Conservation grazing under a management plan that is already being implemented may continue. A list of proposed land acquisitions must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan.
Forestlands are protected from development and fragmentation - Protected forestlands will be measured in acres added to the WMA system. Evaluation is not necessary as the lands will be permanent conservation lands. .Increased availability and improved condition of riparian forests and other habitat corridors - Habitat acres added which enhance corridors, habitat patch size and connectivity can be measured and evaluated for habitat quality and wildlife use through surveys. .Healthy populations of endangered, threatened, and special concern species as well as more common species - Surveys (such as lek, predator scent post, winter track, and small game hunter) will measure and evaluate sharp-tailed grouse and brushland wildlife populations. .Landlocked public properties are accessible with have increased access for land managers - Newly protected habitat acres and the public habitat acres they help access can be measured and evaluated for habitat quality and wildlife use through surveys. .Greater public access for wildlife and outdoors-related recreation - More habitat acres open to hunting and additional access points will be available. Number of hunters can be estimated from license sales and hunter surveys. .Improved availability and improved condition of habitats that have experienced substantial decline - Addition brushland habitat acres protected, restored and enhanced can be measured and evaluated for improved conditions and wildlife use through surveys. .Addresses the “special concern of the conditions of brushlands within the forestlands.” .
DNR in kind service, Private Source
This partnership will protect, restore and enhance 2,769 acres, primarily brushland, in northeastern Minnesota. Habitat will be added to the WMA system and enhanced on existing public lands for species in greatest conservation need, outdoor recreation, and environmental benefits.
Problem and Scope:
Until the 1880s, most of Minnesota was inhabited by sharp-tailed grouse where suitable open and brushland habitat, such as prairies, savannas, sedge meadows and open bogs, occurred. This indigenous grouse was once one of Minnesota’s most abundant game birds, with over 100,000 harvested annually in the 1940’s. Loss, degradation and fragmentation of open and brushland habitat within Minnesota due to natural succession and conversion to other land uses (cropland and tree plantations) has lead to a long term decline in this unique grouse’s population (estimated harvest of 16,800 in 2010), causing its listing as a species in greatest conservation need. Today its remaining range in northern Minnesota, which is less than one-third of its historic range, is in jeopardy of additional fragmentation and degradation.
In east central Minnesota, research results have shown that genetic diversity of the sharp-tailed grouse population may be declining due to increasing isolation of subpopulations. In nearby Wisconsin, genetic diversity has declined so greatly that Wisconsin DNR has translocated sharp-tailed grouse to create a genetic infusion to increase the likelihood of population persistence. Increasing the amount of protected brushland habitat in northeastern Minnesota will be critical to the sustainability of the local sharp-tailed grouse population and gene exchange between Minnesota and Wisconsin populations.
Specific habitat that will be affected and how actions will directly restore, enhance, and/or protect them:
Specific habitats to be affected will include up to 2,769 acres of openland, brushland, cropland and forest habitat. Acquisition of the habitats and their transfer to MDNR for management as state WMA ,will protect them. Natural habitats will include wet meadow, sedge meadow, shrub wetland, bog, grassland, and aspen and northern hardwoods forest. They will be enhanced with prescribed burning, mowing, shearing, timber harvest, and possibly grazing, biomass harvest and occasional haying. Other land includes hay, pasture and crop land that will be restored to open and brushland habitat through establishment of native vegetation, prescribed burning and natural succession.
Multiple benefits of the above protection, enhancement and restoration actions will include increased plant and animal diversity, carbon sequestration, water retention and filtration, opportunities for biomass harvest, access to public lands for recreation, increases eco-tourism opportunities, economic benefits, and secure habitat for sharp-tailed grouse and other open and brushland species in greatest conservation need.
Wildlife species that will benefit:
In addition to sharp-tailed grouse, several other species that use or depend upon open and brushland habitats are also in decline, listed as species in greatest conservation need, and will benefit from this project, including bobolinks, loggerhead shrikes, short-eared owls, yellow rails, eastern meadowlarks, American bittern, northern harrier, golden-winged warblers, Henslow’s sparrow, Le Conte’s sparrow, Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow, and American woodcock. Six of these species are state listed as endangered, threatened or special concern.
Game species that will benefit include white-tailed deer, waterfowl (mallards, blue-winged teal, Canada geese, and more species during migration), wild turkey, American woodcock, common snipe, ruffed grouse, cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, fox, raccoon, and bobcat. Many nongame species such as the Eastern bluebird, American kestrel, brown thrasher, gray catbird, common yellowthroat, sora rail, sedge wren, spring peeper and sandhill crane will benefit.
Urgency and opportunity:
If not acquired while the opportunities exist (i.e., willing sellers and funding opportunities), the chance to protect these priority tracts permanently from land practices incompatible as open and brushland wildlife habitat, and from fragmentation, parcelization and development may be lost. Incompatible land uses, such as building sites, tree plantings, and uncontrolled natural succession, on a tract not only negatively impacts the tract directly, but also surrounding habitat by fragmenting the open character of the land and impacting area-sensitive wildlife species, such as sharp-tailed grouse that are adapted to large open vistas.
How priorities were set / Parcel selection and scoring process:
For consideration of protection and enhancement efforts by the partnership, open and brushland tracts must be located within or at the edge of an ECS landtype association identified as a priority open landscape through DNR’s SFRMP landscape planning process. Further criteria to prioritize which tracts are most critical include a ranking system based upon county location, distance to active sharp-tailed grouse lek, tract size, and distance to protected brushland. A sharp-tailed grouse habitat use model (attached) is being used to target brushland habitat for protection, restoration and enhancement.
Science-based strategic planning and evaluation:
This proposal is based on science-based strategic planning and evaluation. Biological planning, conservation design, delivery, monitoring and research, and adjustments in strategies as needed are used to maintain an adaptive approach.
Sharp-tailed grouse leks (dancing grounds) are the essential hubs of subpopulations. Nesting and brooding rearing occur in suitable habitat within approximately a two-mile radius of leks. All but one of the parcels proposed for protection have active leks either located on them or within ¾ mile away.
All tracts will be critical to sustaining nesting and brood rearing habitat for subpopulations of sharp-tailed grouse. Research by Stanley Temple in Wisconsin suggests that suitable habitat patches of 4000 ha (roughly 10,000 acres, 15½ sq. miles, or a 2.2 mile radius circle) are needed for a sharp-tailed grouse population to survive.
A pilot study in Aitkin County was conducted in 2009 to examine habitat selection, nest success and survival of sharp-tailed grouse. Data from this study and a two-year study currently underway will provide addition information for adaptive management.
Annual spring surveys of sharp-tailed grouse leks allow for monitoring of local populations and the effect of habitat protection and enhancement and other land management activities on them.
Level of stakeholder opposition and involvement:
No stakeholder opposition to proposed acquisitions has been encountered. Proposals to protect land and manage them as public conservation lands are locally-driven by conservation groups, hunters, conservation agency staff, and willing sellers due to the multiple benefits such land protection and management can provide. Local government has been or will be contacted and their support sought.