DNR crews see productive winter of prairie habitat restoration

With the buzzing of chain saws and constant drone of heavy machines, the landscape on the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area in west-central Minnesota is changing. Contractors are busy removing trees from the prairie as part of a wildlife habitat restoration project. 

“We’re enhancing grassland and removing invasive buckthorn on this parcel known as the Chippewa Prairie,” said Walt Gessler, Lac qui Parle area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “There are two more projects similar to this that we hope to finish in 2018.”

Gessler added that the restoration is important because Chippewa Prairie is one of the largest contiguous prairies in the state.

As a result, there have been a number of inquiries – both positive and negative – to Gessler’s office this winter and early spring by curious hunters and birdwatchers who are asking questions about the cutting of trees on their favorite areas. It’s a practice seemingly at odds with longstanding management principles.

It’s not just at Lac Qui Parle. Tree removal is a common practice on state and federal wildlife lands in western Minnesota.

“People are confused when they see groves of trees getting cut down on their favorite hunting lands,” said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team supervisor. “It’s understandable, because we’ve been told for generations how planting trees is good for wildlife. But it’s not the case when you’re managing for species that historically lived on prairie and grasslands.”

Over the last 30 years, researchers have found that upland game birds like pheasants and prairie grouse are less likely to thrive when nesting near trees that provide habitat that can be attractive to predators like red fox, raccoons and owls. Furthermore, many nongame grassland species require habitat totally free of trees. Birds like dickcissels, meadowlarks and bobolinks tend to return to areas that are restored to their original, tree-free environment. And deer still prosper in grassland environments. Management such as tree removal simply reflects that research.

“Our former management practices were to either plant trees or to stay ‘hands-off,’” Hoch said. “What we’ve learned is that grasslands are dynamic and need frequent disturbance by fire, grazing or periodic droughts. In the last two centuries, we’ve suppressed wildfires, eliminated the wild herds of bison and elk, and we’ve been in a wet cycle since the early 1990s. Together these factors have allowed trees to grow on our remaining grasslands.”

This new practice eliminates invasive trees like Russian olive, Siberian elm, and buckthorn.  Native trees such as cottonwood, green ash and boxelder also are cut down when growing in areas being managed for grassland wildlife. Their removal also eliminates a seed source, which helps keep new woody growth at bay.

But not all the trees are cut. Oak savannahs remain, as do other native trees like bur oak, black willow or black walnut that are left in appropriate places like creek bottoms or river corridors.

The DNR has employed this management practice for the past two decades, according to Hoch. In 2016, woody removal on grassland wildlife management areas totaled just over $1 million, most of which was funded by Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars. The Outdoor Heritage Fund uses one-third of the sales tax money generated by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment.

Less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s original prairie remains, so the work to properly restore this threatened ecosystem is important. Many of the non-governmental organizations that partner with the DNR also are working to restore these rare grasslands. Groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy and many local clubs raise money for habitat restoration or perform the work themselves.

As for Gessler, it’s been a productive winter in his work area and he is confident this work will soon be productive for grassland species, too.

“The frozen ground allowed our contractors to get a lot of projects finished. We hope to get the last of our winter projects finished before April 15,” Gessler said.

For more information about work done by DNR wildlife in all areas of the state, visit mndnr.gov/areas/wildlife.