Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge Land Acquisition - Phase VII
$2,754,000 the second year is to the commissioner of natural resources for an agreement with The Nature Conservancy in cooperation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire land in fee or permanent conservation easements and restore lands within the Northern Tallgrass Prairie Habitat Preservation Area in western Minnesota for addition to the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Subject to evaluation criteria in Minnesota Rules, part 6136.0900, priority must be given to acquisition of lands that are eligible for the native prairie bank under Minnesota Statutes, section 84.96, or lands adjacent to protected native prairie. A list of proposed land acquisitions must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan and must be consistent with the priorities in the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.
Remnant native prairies are part of large complexes of restored prairies, grasslands, and large and small wetlands - This program’s top priority is protecting native prairie. The majority of lands acquired will be native prairie and associated native habitats such as wetlands. The parcel selection criteria described above also favor properties located within prairie/grassland/wetland complexes identified in the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan and near existing protected land. The goal is to sustainably protect and buffer native prairies and associated habitats within a context of protected grasslands, wetlands, and other habitats. Results will be reported for the number of acres of native prairie, wetlands, and other native habitats protected and their relationship to existing complexes..
The Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service will cooperate to permanently protect native prairie and associated complexes of wetlands and native habitats in western Minnesota by purchasing approximately 820 acres of fee title properties and/or habitat easements.
The Council’s 25-Year Framework identifies protecting Minnesota’s remaining native prairies as a critical priority. Only a small portion of this once vast prairie still exists. The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) identifies approximately 249,000 acres of remaining native grasslands. Of these, about half are without permanent protection and at risk of conversion.
A 2015 University of Wisconsin study confirms that the danger of conversion is still very real. This paper showed a 215,000 acre increase in net cropland acres in Minnesota between 2008 and 2012. It estimated that as much as 20% of this increase came from lands that had never been cropped. It’s vital that we protect and buffer the remaining native prairies before they are lost.
The Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) was established in 2000 to help meet this need. The Refuge’s mission is to preserve, restore, and manage a portion of the remaining northern tallgrass prairie and associated habitats at widespread locations through the western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa historic range. The number of acres purchased, however, has been limited by shortfalls in acquisition funding since the establishment of this refuge. The current land acquisition budget cannot keep up with landowner interest in this program.
Funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund will allow The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), working in partnership, to significantly accelerate this progress. TNC and USFWS will cooperate on protecting approximately 820 acres of native prairie and associated habitat in the 49 Minnesota counties within the Refuge boundary. Approximately 410 acres will be fee title acquisitions and approximately 410 acres will be protected with permanent habitat easements. The habitat easements will restrict conversion of existing/restored grasslands and wetlands.
The majority of the lands protected will consist of native prairie and associated native habitats including wetlands, streams, and lakes. Because of the nature of parcel ownership, some properties will likely include small areas of converted or degraded lands needing grassland or wetland restoration. Restoration of the lands acquired through this program will be completed where needed.
TNC and USFWS biologists and analysts use the following criteria to review potential acquisitions:
1) Is there native prairie on the tract? If not, is it adjacent to existing native grasslands?
2) Is the property in a core area or critical corridor identified in the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan?
3) Is it adjacent to an existing complex of protected land?
4) Was it identified by MBS, TNC, and USFWS biologists as having concentrations of threatened and endangered species and communities?
5) Is it suitable for public recreation?
This program has been making significant progress towards our shared goal of protecting and buffering the remaining native prairie. The first property was acquired in March, 2013. Since then, progress has been rapid. 3,029 acres have been added to the Refuge. Of these, 1,821 acres are classified as native prairie. Additional habitat includes 311 acres of wetlands and more than 8 miles of stream and/or lakefront. Landowners have committed an additional 613 acres, with 491 acres of native prairie. Negotiations are ongoing with a long list of interested landowners. The Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan helps focus this work in areas with concentrations of habitat and existing protected lands.
With continuing support from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, this program will make real and lasting progress towards protecting Minnesota’s native prairies and the plants and animals that depend on those lands.
At their October 7, 2014 meeting, the Council requested The Nature Conservancy to add the following language about salary and fringe benefit reimbursement to this Accomplishment Plan:
As provided under the subdivisions titled “Payment Conditions and Capital Equipment Expenditures” (ML 2010, Ch. 361, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 10; ML 2011, First Special Session, Ch. 6, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 10; ML 2012, Ch. 264, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 8; ML 2013, Ch. 137, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 8; ML 2014, Ch. 256, Art. 1, Sec. 2, Subd. 8) The Nature Conservancy (the Conservancy) may be reimbursed for salary and fringe benefits based on a provisional fringe benefits rate consistent with federal regulations and negotiated annually with the Conservancy’s cognizant agency. Within 180 days of the end of each Nature Conservancy fiscal year, the Conservancy will provide MN DNR with the actual fringe benefits rate for the prior year and reconcile any overpayment made by the State.