Funnel 1 of the Southern Minnesota Wachter Wildlife Management Area (WMA) was transferred to the state Department of Conservation in 1954 by Worthington area landowners Helen and Ivan Wachter.
This spring, possibly on Earth Day, the official sign for Tract 17 by the same WMA will be knocked into the prairie to pinpoint the latest addition to what has become a lush, 473-acre nature reserve that attracts hunters, bird watchers, nature photographers and feeders from near and far.
“You can walk it for miles,” said Bill Schuna, the area’s wildlife director for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It’s just the most beautiful complex.”
The 57-acre Wachter extension, collected by Pheasants Forever (PF) with financial support from the Lessard-Sam Outdoor Heritage Fund, was one of 34 land parcels (including an easement) handed over to DNR two weeks ago in the latest “designation” orders ” of new, state-owned game management areas. The orders, which are filled in batches every year or two, officially incorporate the recreational areas in the state map and give management authority to DNR.
“It’s a bit like the grand opening,” said Jeff Tillma, DNR’s land purchase coordinator.
According to DNR, the new WMA packages are a total of 5,296 acres, or the equivalent of 8.3 square kilometers. They are predominantly located south of a line from Ortonville in the west to Hastings in the east, a predominantly agricultural region lacking public hunting grounds. At least 30 of the new properties are adjacent to existing WMAs or pheasant habitat complexes to fit with an overall strategy of building large, cohesive chunks of natural space so wildlife can flourish.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Tillma said. “The more pieces you can put together, the bigger the habitat complex.”
Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Pheasants Forever spearheaded many of the latest group of projects by finding willing vendors, attracting local partners and providing expertise in wetland and highland restoration. With bedrock funding provided by the historic Legacy Amendment, the latest bloc of WMAs came together at an approximate cost of $ 20 million. The sum includes local donations, grants from the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act, proceeds from the sale of hunting licenses and contributions from a variety of conservation groups.
Jon Schneider, DU leader for conservation programs in Minnesota, said his group strategically buys marginal cropland with recoverable wetlands. The sites are preferably adjacent to shallow lakes managed by the DNR and other places where the agency wants to own and manage more land. Like DU’s previous WMA projects, the recent sites fit in with the mission of restoring habitats for breeding and migrating waterfowl.
In particular, three new projects – the Indian Lake WMA near Winthrop, the Goose Prairie WMA east of Moorhead and the Seymour Lake WMA in Martin County – required significant amounts of wetlands and prairie restoration, including the removal of underground drainage tiles to restore hydrology and create natural ponds.
In the case of Indian Lake, where 191 acres of new public land will help buffer the lake and facilitate water control measures, the WMA expansion will boost the DNR’s move to designate Indian waters as the state’s newest Wildlife Management Lake. The designation provides legal authority to control water levels to improve aquatic ecology.
“We are moving the needle strategically and creating prairie wetlands,” Schneider said.
The Indian Lake WMA started many years ago with a parcel sold by a nature conservation-conscious landowner who had finished farming. As more pieces have been added and restored, the place has grown into a 587-acre home for ducks, pheasants, songbirds, birds of prey, insects, pollinators and other non-wildlife.
The Goose Prairie WMA in Clay County grew by 31% to 642 acres in size with its most recent expansion. In addition to restoring wetlands that gave large, round ponds back to the landscape, the wildlife area includes 107 acres of highland grasses and wildflowers that provide nesting cover for waterfowl and other grassland-dependent birds.
YOU say that the complex will improve the water quality of the area and provide new opportunities for hunting and bird watching. Schneider said the return of wetlands has attracted a few embedded canvasbacks.
“It is not surprising,” he said, “but terribly rewarding to see.”
The new batch of wildlife management areas varies in size, up to 955 acres at the Cupido WMA northwest of Becker in Norman County. In Le Sueur County, east of St. Peter, received the Diamond Lake WMA 358 new acres, making it “the last piece of the puzzle that secures an entire wetland basin.” At the Maple River WMA in Blue Earth County, 15 acres of new public hunting land also ended state ownership of land adjacent to the river.
Benefits assigned to various projects include protection of a deer wintering area, protection of native prairie remains, “close to home” opportunities to recruit new hunters and anglers, and conservation of critical habitats for prairie chickens.
Eran Sandquist is State Coordinator for Minnesota Pheasants Forever. He highlighted the success of the Wachter WMA when asked to highlight a project included in the recent group of new recreation areas.
Decades ago, the nonprofit conservation group targeted Wachter for its first acquisition and restoration project. From the start, the complex has benefited from a genuine partnership of wildlife and water interests, Sandquist said. It all started with the Wachter family’s desire to preserve a large bow.
Tract 17, the latest addition, is a 57-acre plot connecting the WMA’s main unit with its “eastern addition”. The expansion converts more farmland into wildlife habitat, providing yet another protective filter for groundwater tapped by Worthington’s public supply to homes and businesses.
Partners in Tract 17 include the city’s Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Outdoor Heritage Fund, Clean Water Fund, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the local PF department.
“It’s a kind of wonderful marriage … to use dollars to do a community benefit project in a community,” Sandquist said.