‘Just a nice complex’: Minnesota maps new hunting and wildlife areas full of features

The first portion of the Wachter Wildlife Management (WMA) area of ​​southern Minnesota was transferred to the state Department of Conservation in 1954 by Worthington area landowners Helen and Evan Wachter.

This spring, possibly on Earth Day, the official signage for Tract 17 from the WMA itself will be set in the prairie to designate the latest addition to what has become a 473-acre green nature area that attracts hunters, bird watchers, nature photographers, and foragers from near and far.

“You can walk for miles, it’s the most beautiful complex,” said Bill Shona, director of area wildlife for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The 57-acre Wachter addition, which was assembled by Pheasants Forever (PF) with a financial basis from the Lessard-Sams Foreign Heritage Trust, was one of 34 plots (including one easement) delivered to DNR two weeks ago in its latest “designation” ‘Order’ for new state-owned wildlife management areas. Applications, completed in batches every one or two years, formally incorporate recreation lands into state maps and grant management authority to the DNR.

“It’s kind of a grand opening,” said Jeff Thelma, DNR’s land tenure coordinator.

According to DNR, the new WMA plots total 5,296 acres, or 8.3 square miles. Located mostly south of a line from Ortonville in the west to Hastings in the east, it is a predominantly agricultural area lacking public hunting grounds. At least 30 new properties adjoining WMAs or pheasant habitat complexes to fit an overarching strategy to build large, contiguous portions of landscaped spaces for wildlife to thrive.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Thelma. “The more pieces you can piece together, the bigger the habitat complex.”

Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Pheasants Forever have spearheaded many of the latest batch of projects by finding willing vendors, attracting local partners and providing expertise for wetland and upland restoration. With seed funding provided by the Historic Legacy Amendment, the WMA’s latest batch has been assembled at an approximate cost of $20 million. The amount includes local donations, grants from the federal North American Wetland Conservation Act, proceeds from the sale of hunting licenses, and contributions from a variety of conservation groups.

John Schneider, director of conservation programs at DU in Minnesota, said his group strategically purchases marginal cropland with recoverable wetlands. Preferably, the sites are adjacent to DNR-managed shallow lakes and other sites where the agency wants to own and manage more land. Like DU’s previous WMA projects, the latest sites are suited to the task of restoring habitats for waterfowl breeding and migration.

Three new projects in particular—Indian Lake WMA near Winthrop, Goose Prairie WMA east of Moorhead, and Seymour Lake WMA in Martin County—called for significant amounts of wetland and prairie restoration, including removing 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 isolate the lake and facilitate water control measures, the WMA’s expansion will bolster DNR’s move to designate Indian Waters as the state’s newest wildlife management lake. The classification provides the legal authority to manage water levels to enhance the aquatic environment.

“We are moving the needle strategically and creating a prairie wetland habitat,” Schneider said.

The Indian Lake WMA began years ago with the sale of a plot of land by a conservation landowner who had finished farming. With more plots added and restored, the place grew to 587 acres for ducks, pheasants, songbirds, raptors, insects, pollinators, and other little-known wildlife.

Goose Prairie WMA in Clay County grew 31%, to 642 acres in size with its most recent expansion. Besides restoring the wetlands that have returned large, round ponds to the landscape, the wildlife area includes 107 acres of upland grasses and wildflowers that provide nesting cover for waterfowl and other grassland-dependent birds.

DU says the complex will improve water quality in the area and provide new opportunities for hunting and bird-watching. Schneider said the return of the wetlands has attracted a pair of canvas-nesting backpackers.

“It’s not surprising,” he said, “but seeing it is very rewarding.”

The new batch ranges from Wildlife Management Areas in size, up to 955 acres at Cupido WMA northwest of Baker in Norman County. In Le Sueur County, east of St. Peter, Diamond Lake WMA received 358 new acres that form “the final piece of the puzzle that secures an entire wetland basin.” At Maple River WMA in Blue Earth County, 15 acres of new public hunting grounds also completed state ownership of land adjacent to the river.

Benefits assigned to the various projects include protection of the deer winter area, protection of native prairie remains, “close to home” opportunities to recruit new hunters and hunters, and critical habitat preservation for prairie hens.

Eran Sandquist is the state coordinator for Minnesota Pheasants Forever. He singled out the success of Wachter WMA when asked to highlight a project included in the latter’s set of new entertainment grounds.

Decades ago, the nonprofit conservation group targeted Wachter in its first acquisition and restoration project. Sandquist said the complex benefited from the start from a true partnership between wildlife and aquatic interests. It all started with the Wachter family’s desire to keep a large flea.

Tract 17, the latest addition, is a 57-acre parcel that connects the WMA main unit to the “Eastern Addition.” The expansion turns more farmland into a wildlife habitat, providing another protective filter for groundwater that Worthington’s public utilities are tapping into for homes and businesses.

Partners in Tract 17 include the city’s Okabena-Ocheda Watershed, the Minnesota Water and Soil Resources Board, the Outdoor Heritage Trust, the Clean Water Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the local PF chapter.

“It’s kind of a beautiful marriage … taking advantage of dollars to do one project with many benefits within the local community,” Sandquist said.