BEAVER CREEK, Minn. – The farm-friendly confines of Rock County have made this southwesternmost corner of the state a dead end for pheasants.
Plows have nearly wiped out the area’s ecologically diversified prairies. Ringnecks still nest here and raise broods, but only at the mercy of landowners who set aside habitat for them.
Rooster Ridge is such a place.
Minnesota’s newest state wildlife management area — a rugged pocket of land that was farmed for decades — was dedicated Friday as a haven for wildlife and as a destination for men and women who enjoy the outdoors. The landowner who unlocked the 92-acre parcel in a sale to state taxpayers is a farmer and hunter who wanted to give back to his community and to his higher power.
“God created this world,’’ Howard Van Wyhe said. “There were a lot of pheasants here in the past, and hopefully there will be more.’’
The opening of new public lands has become a tradition at the Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener, which was held this year in nearby Luverne. What makes Rooster Ridge unique in the governor’s collection is its instant prominence to local pheasant hunters.
Rock County, blessed by rich soil and bordered by Iowa and South Dakota, is dominated by agriculture and contains a mere 2,100 acres of permanently dedicated public hunting lands. Nearly half of those conservation acres make up Touch The Sky Prairie, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The balance is divided into nine DNR-controlled wildlife management areas (WMAs). All by itself, Rooster Ridge boosted the county’s WMA surface area by 8 percent.
By comparison, Nobles County to the east contains 5,730 acres of WMAs. And in Pipestone County, to the north, WMA acreage stands at 3,139 acres.
“It’s little pieces added here and there,’’ said Arlyn Gehrke, a wingshooter who works for the Rock County Soil and Water Conservation District. “They’re few and far between.’’
More than 100 people, many decked out in blaze orange, attended Friday’s christening of the new public land. It contains a wooded creek bottom, steep banks, three tillable sites formerly planted in crops and an old pasture. When newly planted native prairie grasses take hold, the site will provide ringnecks with nesting cover, brood-rearing habitat and all-natural thermal insulation for wintering.
“You guys are standing on ground that was planted in soybeans last year,’’ Rock County Pheasants Forever President Darin Kindt told the crowd. “It was a long time coming so it’s great that this all came together.’’
Pheasants Forever brokered the deal and contributed about $20,000. Additional help came from the Beaver Creek Sportsman’s Club and the Luverne High School trap shooting team. Volunteers cleaned the road ditches, rid the land of farm trash and ripped out all fencing.
But Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund handled the heavy lifting. Reaching into annual proceeds raised by sales tax revenue from the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, trustees of the fund awarded the project about $685,000. Van Wyhe’s share was $585,000. To qualify for public funding, he accepted $26,000 less than the property’s appraised value.
Van Wyhe said he acquired the land in 1989 but concentrated his farming on the Rock County “home place’’ of his mother and father. The Rooster Ridge site wasn’t ideal for crop production, he said, because only 80 percent was tillable and the parcel’s three fields weren’t contiguous.
He explored making it into a private hunting land or selling to a private buyer. He settled on the WMA route on the advice of Scott Rall, a well-known Pheasants Forever conservationist from the nearby Worthington area. Rall gave the property high marks for habitat value and public benefit.
Ultimately, Van Wyhe said, it was important for him to do the deal as a way to counter negative impressions about farming.
“As farmers down here we’re not trying to wreck this earth,’’ he said.
Van Wyhe said in an essay about the deal that he loves hunting and that southwestern Minnesota is a blessing from God. The letter recognizes that modern farming “has led to a loss of a lot of great habitat for wildlife and especially for pheasants.’’ But predation and extreme weather also have hurt the birds, he wrote.
“For all these reasons I sold my land … to give back to this community. To give habitat for wildlife and pheasants. To give future hunting generations a place to hunt.’’