Eyes in the sky over the western prairie

Four cows in this herd grazing the Chippewa Prairie are fitted with GPS equipped, satellite linked collars that record their movements.

Moose research in the northeast corner of Minnesota is providing an unexpected, and totally high tech boost to research on the Chippewa Prairie along Lac qui Parle Lake.

Four GPS-equipped and satellite-linked collars used to track moose calves are now helping researchers follow cattle.

The collars had been attached to moose calves shortly after their births in spring. The collars made it possible for researchers to quickly reach the calves when they died and determine the cause of mortality.

The role of the satellite-linked collars on the prairie is not quite so dramatic, but no less important. They make it possible to precisely monitor the movement of cattle as they graze a 2,000-acre prairie area.

Each spring, an area of this open prairie is deliberately burned.

Known as a patch-burn regimen, it mimics the natural prairie when bison and elk moved in after prairie fires to graze on the newly-emerged vegetation.

A cow outfitted with a collar.

The collars will help offer “answers to the questions,’’ said Joe Blastick, with The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy and DNR own the 2,000 acres of native prairie and former pasture, and are partners in this research.

Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had learned that the collars from the unfortunate moose calves were collected and held for use next year. He asked to borrow a few of the collars for the summer season.

Every hour, the collars send a signal to satellites giving the precise location of the animals. From the comfort of an office, Trauba and Blastick can click a mouse and see exactly where the cattle are grazing, as well as look at where they have been in any of the previous days.

Along with location, the collars also record when a cow has her head up or down, indicative of whether she is grazing or moving.

Joe Blastick with The Nature Conservancy (left) and Dave Trauba with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are among those monitoring how the prairie responds to the fire-grazing regimen.

This is the third year the patch-burn grazing research has been taking place on the prairie. In the past, Trauba and Blastick tried their best to keep track of the cattle’s grazing patterns, but could never spend all the time needed.

The collars will now provide researchers with comprehensive information on just how much time the cattle actually spend on the burn patch grazing. The information will help assure that the cattle are managed to best benefit the prairie.

The goal is to see that the natural disturbance provided by the cattle increases the diversity of native prairie plants, while also helping keep non-native plants in check. The grazing should also keep the flowers and grasses at a shorter height, which benefits grassland birds and other wildlife.

The anecdotal evidence to date is encouraging. “I just think the grazing-fire interaction begets diversity,’’ said Trauba as he pointed to the lush mix of forbs and grasses at the site.

The DNR-owned lands here are part of the wildlife management area and are open to hunting. The cattle will be removed in early September, before the start of the deer archery season.

Trauba, an avid hunter, knows that many hunters are watching the DNR’s use of grazing to manage grasslands with a cautious eye. The goal here is to make this a win-win situation.

The fire-grazing regimen should provide improved habitat for wildlife of all types, including pheasants and other game species. While the relatively small portion of this prairie that was burned last spring may have ankle-high grass, upland bird hunters will still find knee- and waist-high growth throughout the majority of the remainder of the area.  They should find plenty of birds to flush.

The portion of the prairie that was burned and now grazed by the cattle is thriving.



Happy campers at Sibley State Park as naturalist programs return

Samantha Schwartz uses a vacuum bug collector to catch a dragonfly while participating in a naturalist program at Sibley State Park on Thursday.

SIBLEY STATE PARK — Bennett Schwartz has not been invited to the Home Run Derby at Target Field, but at Sibley State Park he proved he could swing a butterfly net like a major league pro.

On Thursday he was snagging dragonflies zipping by like speed balls fired by Aroldis Chapman.

He was having a lot of fun, said his grandmother, Jonette Engan, She was more than happy to have escorted him to the park for a park naturalist program on dragonflies.

Engan said she was very happy to see the return of naturalist programs at the park.

The park has been without naturalist programs since Dick Clayton retired last December after 35 years with the park.

Melissa Rothwell took on the duties on July 3, and hasn’t missed a beat. “She hit the ground running,’’ said Jack Nelson, park manager.

It’s familiar ground to Rothwell, a Spicer native. She served as a seasonal naturalist with the park during the summers of 2010-12. She introduced the park’s popular archery program.


She holds a degree in natural resources management from the University of Minnesota, Crookston, She’s certified as an instructor for both archery and flatwater paddling.  Rothwell said she will be offering these and many other programs in the weeks ahead.

She is serving as a seasonal naturalist in a position funded through Legacy funds into late September. The seasonal position works well for her. Her husband is in the military.

A tight budget has forced state parks to leave some positions unfilled when vacancies occurred. The naturalist position at Sibley is among them. Last year’s harsh winter and the unexpected rise in the cost of propane for heating added to the financial challenges, noted Nelson.

Sibley State Park is one of the most popular state parks, ranked sixth overall in usage with more than 300,000 visitors in a year. It has also established a reputation for offering one of the best naturalist programs, and Nelson said that tradition will remain.

By weathering the financial challenges today, he is hopeful that the park will be in a better position to lobby to replace the permanent, naturalist position next spring.

Bennett Schwartz runs with his butterfly net to catch dragonflies while participating in a naturalist program at Sibley State Park on Thursday.

In the meantime, he’s hearing from campers and day visitors alike about how much they enjoy having naturalist programs back at the park.

Rothwell’s focus is on offering programs that combine education with hands on, outdoor activities. Programs are mainly offered Thursdays through Mondays. Upcoming programs are listed on the park’s website, in the West Central Tribune and neighboring newspapers, and on fliers in the park.


Life on the edge is very interesting, and beautiful


Martha Alsleben looks at a tiny, macro-invertebrate in the plastic bag held by Jake Titus as they attempt to identify it.

Life on the edge is very interesting, and beautiful.

We know it as Sibley State Park.

For 14 adults, it was their outdoor classroom for five days (June 23- 27) as they studied to become Master Naturalists in a unique program offered by the University of Minnesota Extension.

Since 2005, more than 1,600 volunteers have completed the 40-hour master naturalist program to learn about Minnesota’s outdoors.  Graduates join a cadre of citizens who volunteer a minimum of 40 hours every subsequent year to help on projects benefiting our natural resources.

This was the first time the class was hosted at Sibley State Park, but it would be hard to find a better location, according to its instructor and the director of the U of M Naturalist program, Amy Rager.

“This is where two biomes meet,’’ said Rager. “Because it’s an edge, it has a lot of diversity,” she said of the park.

The Master Naturalist programs are offered across the state and focus on the biome in the respective areas they are held. There are programs focused on the Prairie and Potholes; Northwoods and Great Lakes; and Big Woods, Big River biomes of the state.

Sibley State Park is located in that transition zone where the prairie and big woods meet. The park also protects oak savanna, a landscape that is becoming increasingly rare.

Students hiked the park’s trail to identify plants, animals and insects. They also dipped nets into the waters of Lake Andrew to capture and identify its macro-invertebrate life.

The 14 participants came from locations as diverse as Minneota, Fairfax and Minneapolis. They shared one thing in common. “These people are life-long learners. As adults they want to know things,’’ said Rager.

The combination of classroom and hands on, outdoor activities appeals to the adults who pursue the master naturalist designation.

Needless to say, they also share an appreciation for the outdoors.

Virginia Amundson and Mike Follett collect macro-invertebrates from Lake Andrew with other students in the Master Naturalist program held at Sibley State Park.

That appreciation is strong enough that easily one-half or more of the graduates of the program have continued to meet and exceed the 40-hours per year volunteer obligation, said Rager.

Having this volunteer corps of people who are willing and able to help out with natural resource issues is important, she noted. “They want to help. It think it is exciting. I feel like we’re actually going to make an impact on natural resources.’’

There was little question about the impact the program was having on its students: They were sloshing about the Lake Andrew shoreline with dip nets as enthusiastically as the young anglers tossing worms to fish from the lake’s fishing pier nearby.

“We never have to remind them to be focused,’’ said Rager, laughing, about the students. “We like have to cut them off because we need to go home at the end of the day.’’

Rager considers her job the best of all possible.

“I love seeing adults so excited about learning things. And they are interested in the same things I am interested in,’’ she said.

Instructor Amy Rager holds a tiny macro-invertebrate the students identified from the waters of Lake Andrew.

Remembering a loved one’s passion for the outdoors

Dan Zimmerman releases a mourning dove he had trapped and banded as part of his work at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Area.

LAC QUI PARLE — A lot of hard-working people are responsible for making the  Lac qui Parle Wildlife Area western Minnesota’s premier destination for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and outdoor activities of all types.

The tragic loss of one man who embodied the passion for this special place recently spurred action to remember him and all of those who have worked so hard for the outdoors.

Family, friends and the former co-workers of Dan Zimmerman gathered at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource contact station at Lac qui Parle on May 31 to dedicate a stone monument remembering Zimmerman and all of those who have labored for what we enjoy here today.

“He didn’t have any quit in him,’’ said Kristi Doose, Granite Falls, of her late brother. The stone that is now the monument had been unearthed when she and her husband built their home in 1990, and set aside for a purpose she could not have foreseen.

The memorial is located outside the contact station at Lac qui Parle.

Her brother grew up “smack dab in the middle” as the only boy surrounded by seven sisters. His father, LeRoy, 91, and mother, Norma, 87, were among those who remembered his love for hunting, fishing and all things outdoors.

The family ran a bait shop along the Minnesota River in Granite Falls. “Zimmy,” as he was known, took to hunting and fishing with his dad from the start.

He earned a degree in forest ecology at Vermillion Community College, Ely, and studied taxidermy at a school in Wisconsin.

He worked for more than 35 years at the Lac qui Parle refuge. Like many who make the Department of Natural Resources their career, he began by taking a seasonal assignment at the refuge. In the off months, he helped trap and relocate wild turkeys, and played an important role in the re-establishment of the species in Minnesota.

In his memory, the Wild Turkey Federation and its local chapter donated over $5,000 to help improve turkey habitat in the Chippewa Prairie bottoms along Lac qui Parle Lake. The remote area was his favorite hunting spot, and the lake is where he spent his time when not hunting. Some of the big walleyes, crappies and northern pike he pulled from its waters- and used his taxidermy skills to preserve- will be soon on the walls of the Lac qui Parle contact station.

Zimmerman took his life at age 58 on Aug. 23, 2013.

No one had anticipated it.

“One of the most physically tough guys I’ve ever met, and mentally too,’’ said Dave Trauba, manager of the wildlife refuge and Zimmeran’s former boss.

He was apparently experiencing depression, and the wheels were turning to help him.

He died just a couple of days before his next appointment with a medical professional.

“He loved life, had tons of friends. It’s just a puzzle as how this could have spiraled so fast that we were unable to save him,’’ said his sister Linda Olson of Waconia.

Some wonder if there wasn’t an underlying physical issue, she said.

The experience has made Trauba painfully aware that depression is a disease that can afflict anyone, no matter how strong or good-spirited a person might be otherwise. “If it can happen to Dan, what about the rest of us?’’ he said.

The focus at the memorial ceremony was all about celebrating his many positive contributions, and having fun. His nephews and others competed at duck and goose calling, a reminder of his love for waterfowl hunting.

When Zimmy was 14- like the nephews he took hunting- he had been shot in the back of his left arm in a hunting accident. He nearly lost his arm, but not his determination. He went on to become a three-sport athlete in high school, and to his final days, was known as an expert archer and marksman.

He hunted moose and elk and thought nothing of taking extended backpack trips into the northern wilderness. Doose remembers her phone ringing one night. It was her brother calling. He told her he was surprised he had service where he was located, but had to let her listen to the howling wolves that were serenading him.

Next year the family plans to work with the DNR to help establish a butterfly garden and add plantings to benefit pollinators at the refuge. They want to continue doing what their loved one had made his legacy: Be good stewards of this wildlife area.

“We’re still feeling the void,’’ said Trauba of Zimmerman’s loss at the refuge.

Dan Zimmerman’s parents, LeRoy and Norma were among those who joined to remember all he had done.

Let’s Go Fishing makes it happen for young people too

Willmar fourth-grader Ridwan Madey holds up her first fish. Let’s Go Fishing volunteer Paula Ziems helped introduce her to fishing.

SPICER — We can wring our hands and worry about all the time young people tie their hands to electronic devices.

Or, we can do what the Willmar chapter of Let’s Go Fishing did on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Let’s Go Fishing chapter launched its 2014 season in a big way by hosting 350 fourth-graders from the Willmar and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa schools on Green Lake in Spicer.

Roger Benson, starting his ninth year with the Willmar chapter, had lined up five pontoons and the services of more than one dozen volunteers to join the students, their teachers and other adult helpers on the water.

On shore at Saulsbury Park in Spicer, staff with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office devoted both days to offering programs on aquatic habitat for the students.

Let’s Go Fishing focuses on seniors by hosting them on fishing and boating excursions, but it also serves youths and others when possible.

The Willmar chapter hosted 350 fourth-graders on Green Lake on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Let’s Go Fishing founder and president Joe Holm is among those with concerns about the many hours young people spend occupied with electronics today. He is eager to expand the opportunities for youth to discover the outdoors.

“It becomes more important now than ever before to keep our young people active, outdoors (in) a healthy environment,’’ said Holm.

It’s hard to imagine a better way than a Let’s Go Fishing outing. The students made no secret of their excitement at the opportunity to catch fish and be on the water. For many of the fourth-graders, this was the first time they ever caught a fish.

For some adults, this was their first-time ever volunteering for Let’s Go Fishing. Paula Ziems, Grove City, was one of them. Ziems said she loves to fish, and knew she would enjoy helping others fish.

Ziems said her grandfather taught her how to fish. It provides her with much enjoyment. It’s a gift she helped pass on to another generation thanks to Let’s Go Fishing.


Roger Benson chats with Willmar fourth-grade instructor Donna Hedlof as Clarence Theessen guides them and 10 students to the fish.