The busy season has begun in earnest for Don Nelson of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Nelson is the area wildlife supervisor for the 27,500-acre Whitewater WMA (Wildlife Management Area), the state’s fifth largest unit, in Winona, Wabasha and Olmsted counties.

“We have a lot of balls in the air this time of year,” Nelson said. “We’re getting the parking lots mowed and ready and the boundaries posted for the upcoming hunting seasons. This last week I’ve even been monitoring a couple of timber management sales, and our habitat management work continues and is ongoing. You don’t know what’s going to crop up from one day to the next, but it keeps things interesting.”

Started in 1951 to address the dramatic loss of wildlife habitat, the Minnesota WMA system has roughly 1,500 units of more than 1.3 million acres. Such state areas are formed to protect “those lands and waters that have a high potential for wildlife production,” according to the DNR, and are open to public hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and other activities such as wildlife-watching. The system includes a diversity of habitat types: prairies and wetlands, forests and brush lands. Of Minnesota’s 87 counties, only Ramsey doesn’t have a WMA.

“Our system is one of the best and one of the largest in the country for state wildlife lands,” said Kim Hennings, Minnesota DNR wildlife land acquisition coordinator. “It’s the backbone of our wildlife management efforts and benefits a whole range of wildlife species. During the hunting season, WMAs get heavy, heavy use.”

More acres added

This year, an additional 5,041 acres have been added to WMAs in 22 counties, according to the DNR. That expansion includes three new WMAs. Several partner organizations (Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the Natural Conservancy and more) helped acquire the new acres, of which 70 percent are in the state’s pheasant range.

“State taxpayers get a great deal for dollars that are spent on WMA acquisitions,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “That’s because conservation-minded groups and individuals who partner with the DNR add a tremendous amount of local expertise and financial muscle that stretches public funding much further.”

Wildlife management areas are paid for in numerous ways, including the $6.50 surcharge on small-game hunting licenses, Henning said. In addition, bonding funds, money from the purchase of critical habitat license plates, and other state sources have been used to buy WMAs.

Of this year’s new WMAs, 3,300 acres were paid for with money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which was recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and approved by the state Legislature. The Outdoor Heritage Fund is one of several funds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution in 2008.

“Hunters play a significant role in these acquisitions,” Henning said.

Many acres to manage

Whitewater WMA is one of seven that have permanent DNR staffing. That includes Red Lake WMA in Beltrami County, the state’s largest unit at roughly 213,000 acres.

Nelson, who supervises three full-time wildlife employees at Whitewater, said a large WMA brings a lot of responsibility.

Each year, for example, there are prescribed burns of hundreds of acres of grassland and forest stands. Roughly 26 miles of forest roads and trails and 54 parking lots must be maintained. Nelson said his staff also regulates water levels and conducts drawdowns on 14 waterfowl impoundments to improve habitat for water birds and aquatic furbearers. That’s but a sampling of his team’s workload.

“We burned about 2,000 acres this spring, and it’s really looking great right now,” Nelson said. “It’s nice to see the habitat work pay off. We have some maintenance backlogs, but we’re doing pretty well with our habitat work. The Lessard funding, which can only be used for habitat management, has really helped.”

Nelson said an estimated 500,000 “users” visit Whitewater WMA and neighboring Whitewater State Park every year. “It’s a very popular area for fishing and hunting,” he said. “The WMA is probably most heavily used during the deer hunting seasons, but we see plenty of small-game hunters, too.”

Nelson said Whitewater WMA gets regular, nontraditional use, too. “Our primary mission is to provide habitat for hunting and trapping, but we definitely encourage nonconsumptive users to come here and hike, bird-watch, etc.,” he said. “We see a lot of foraging for morel mushrooms every spring. … That’s a busy time here, too.”

Scott Doheny, 47, an avid waterfowl and deer hunter from New Prague, said he’s happy to have so many state wildlife management areas at his disposal.

“One of the major impediments to hunting in today’s society is access, and these public areas provide that,” said Doheny, who has hunted on WMAs across the state, for pheasants, deer, squirrels, ruffed grouse and more. “There are a lot of guys I know who wouldn’t be hunting without state and federal lands open to public hunting. They’re critical for access as well as wildlife habitat, which we’re losing at an alarming rate, especially in prairie country.”

 

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.