EVANSVILLE, MINN. – Andy Lang grew up not far from here, in Erdahl, Minn., which today is a township inhabited by about 350 people.

Lying generally between Alexandria and Fergus Falls, Minn., not far off Interstate 94, Erdahl and the wetland-pocked five-county region surrounding it historically have been ground zero in Minnesota for nesting and migratory ducks.

"My dad owned the creamery in Erdahl,'' Lang said the other day as we stood on a 66-acre grass- and wetland-filled parcel he and his wife, Louise, own.

Overhead, the sky was steel gray, and a bitter wind blew from the north.

"That's how I met Louise,'' added Lang, 73. "Her dad was a dairy farmer, and two or three times a week, he'd bring cream to our creamery.''

As Lang spoke, an older black Labrador lazed at his feet, while a Lab puppy, newly acquired, kicked up her heels. Nearby, mallard pairs by the dozens jumped up and settled back into a bevy of newly reclaimed wetlands.

In their way, the ducks and retrieving dogs symbolized Lang's lifelong love affair with waterfowling.

"My dad grew up on the east end of Lake Christina,'' he said, referring to the 4,000-acre shallow lake that lies about a dozen miles northeast of Lang's property near Evansville.

A century ago, Christina was a nationally renowned duck and duck-hunting hot spot.

"But by moving a little south and west from Christina to Erdahl, he enjoyed the same great duck hunting, plus better pheasant hunting,'' Lang said.

Hoping to reclaim a portion of the region's waterfowling heritage, Lang and his wife in recent years joined a burgeoning number of landowners in Minnesota and across the nation electing to manage their properties for wildlife.

Some of the conservation efforts involve land purchases by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources or various conservation groups. More commonly, the lands are accessed through easements.

Known as pothole country, the part of Minnesota that stretches from Fergus Falls south to Willmar features undulating landscape and nearly countless small ponds and shallow lakes formed about 12,000 years ago by retreating glaciers. Tall grass prairies eventually bordered the waterways, aggregating the region into a wildlife mecca.

So abundant were ducks in the area they were commercially hunted until the end of the 19th century, with iced and boxed redhead and canvasback carcasses shipped daily in fall to restaurants in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Today, though at times abundant, ducks frequenting the area are a shadow of their once-plentiful selves.

"When I was a kid, I hunted 74 prairie wetlands in a 21-mile circle around Erdahl,'' Lang said. "Now every one of those wetlands is planted in corn or soybeans.''

Attempting to stave off these and similar habitat losses, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers increasingly work with private landowners to restore wetlands and grasslands. In fact, biologists toiling in the service's Fergus Falls office in 1987 developed a pilot private lands habitat program that has since been institutionalized nationwide as the service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

Combined with significant time and money contributions from Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and other nonprofits, the Partners program is having a large-scale, positive conservation impact.

Shawn Papon is a wildlife biologist in the service's Fergus Falls Wetland Management District.

"We have two basic private lands conservation programs,'' Papon said. "The Partners program is an agreement with the landowner extending for 10 years, which gives the landowner some long-term flexibility. Our easement program, by contrast, extends perpetually and involves a one-time payment to the landowner who might in some cases retain certain rights, such as haying or grazing.''

Ducks Unlimited state conservation program director Jon Schneider, who lives in nearby Alexandria, often joins his group's funds and other resources with those of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Every property is different,'' Schneider said. "In most restorations we use a combination of resources, including some from the landowner, to fund and complete the work.''

Wetland restorations done 20 years ago or longer often involved simply plugging a ditch or breaking subsurface tile and allowing a drained basin to fill.

That method proved challenging in moraine-style landscapes because the drained basins were often filled with eroded hilltop sediment, which hindered native plant development while encouraging invasive species such as hybrid cattails.

Today, bulldozers are often used to scrape away as much as 3 feet of sediment before refilling a basin.

"Aquatic plant seeds can lay dormant in the soil a long time, and when we scrape away the sediment and get down to where they are buried, they'll germinate,'' Papon said.

On the Langs' two parcels, 25 wetlands have been restored and trees that sprouted as "volunteers'' were cut down.

"I couldn't be happier with how everything turned out,'' he said. "Louise and I understand our properties are small in the scheme of things. But we're trying to leave something for future generations.

"We walk on them almost every evening, just to see the ducks and geese. It makes you feel good.''

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com