More healthy prairies are springing up amidst southern Minnesota’s corn and soybean fields.

More healthy prairies are springing up amidst southern Minnesota’s corn and soybean fields.

These aren’t new grasslands. They are part of the 689 wildlife management areas covering 154,798 acres in the 32-county area of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) southern region. Habitats vary from grassland and prairie to shallow lake, wetland and forested riparian areas.

“These public lands comprise only 1.19 percent of the total land in these counties but they represent some of the most diverse and important habitats remaining in this part of the state,” said Bob Welsh, DNR’s habitat program manager. “It is critical that they be managed to their full potential.”

A major portion of those areas are grasslands, which require frequent disturbance to remain healthy. But many needed help. Woody cover quickly invades undisturbed grasslands. And once trees take root, intervention is necessary.

That’s when Minnesota voters stepped in with sales tax dollars dedicated to conservation. Much like grasslands supplementing agriculture on a landscape of corn and soybeans, money provided by the 2008 passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment allowed the DNR to supplement its work by adding dedicated roving crews to enhance existing grassland habitat on DNR lands. Three roving crews, which have been phased in during the last three years, have made Minnesota better by tackling grassland enhancement work on 23,000 acres, nearly doubling the DNR’s capacity.

“Supplant versus supplement are very important words to the DNR and the Legacy Amendment,” Welsh said. “Area wildlife managers didn’t have sufficient staff to conduct grassland management work, especially prescribed burns and other woody brush removal projects at the preferred interval for optimal grassland health. The work of the roving crews is all new work that enhances and improves existing public lands.”

The DNR’s improvements come at a time when farmland and commodity prices are at a premium. Land set aside for habitat such as Conservation Reserve Program acres are falling under the bite of the plow. With no farm bill in place as yet, the future of such conservation programs is uncertain.

“It’s imperative that we conserve and enhance the public lands we have now to their greatest potential,” Welsh said. “The roving crews, working at the direction of area wildlife managers, are on the front line of making our prairie habitat the best that it can be.”

The southern and central region crews each aim to burn 3,500 acres per year and assist with other habitat work on an additional 1,000 acres. In the northwest, plans are to burn 7,000 acres each year and assist with other habitat work on 1,000 additional acres.

Legacy Amendment dollars also are being used to hire contractors to accomplish large blocks of grassland enhancement work including removing woody invasive species and prairie seeding that requires specialized equipment. Contracting with specialized contractors can be a cost-effective way to further supplement grassland improvement work.

Already, in the southern region alone, contractors have enhanced 6,500 acres of grassland habitat since Legacy dollars first became available in 2009. During that same time, contractors have seeded 820 acres of new grassland in southern Minnesota.

The DNR, along with other conservation partners, also has begun to target its work into core areas that are connected by wildlife friendly corridors. This targeted approach means that all prairie work done by the partners and supported by the Legacy Amendment dollars are supplementing each other.

At the same time, an approach called the Working Lands Initiative is being implemented to work with private landowners to create diversified agricultural practices by creating incentives for farmers to grow wildlife friendly grasses. This coordinated management, conducted as part the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, is assuring that grasslands will continue to provide multiple benefits for years to come.

“It doesn’t have to be a choice between habitat and agriculture,” Welsh said. “Diverse, functional landscapes that put grasslands out there in the right places can provide quality habitat and support agriculture at the same time.”

Prairie restoration and enhancement is just one of many programs funded by Legacy Amendment dollars that flow into the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Thirty-three percent of the sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is distributed to the Outdoor Heritage Fund. These funds may be spent only to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game and wildlife. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council was established by the Legislature to provide annual recommendations on how the Outdoor Heritage funds should be used.