Buffer proposal aims to reverse loss of habitat

Conservation leaders in the state adopted a plan in 2005 to protect an additional 78,000 acres each year to provide habitat for pheasants, but we’ve been losing grasslands since 2007.

There are regulations today requiring vegetative buffers along waterways, but the rules can be confusing, can be interpreted and enforced differently across the state, and certainly do not provide the amount of habitat Governor Mark Dayton hopes to achieve with his recent proposal.

He is calling for a 50-foot buffer along 21,000 linear miles of waterway in the state, enough to provide 125,000 acres of habitat.

“In my mind the strength of it is the simplicity,’’ Dayton told reporters shortly after announcing his proposal last Friday at the Department of Natural Resource’s Roundtable in Brooklyn Park. “Everything is treated the same.’’

Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota DNR, and his staff are now at work turning those words into legislation to be introduced this session. Speaking to reporters last Friday, Landwehr said he is looking at the successful efforts in Olmsted and Otter Tail counties as the legislation is drafted. A combination of incentives and enforcement has brought both counties a long ways towards the goal the governor is seeking, he said.

Landwehr said two existing laws are currently at play when it comes to buffers. One pertains only to public ditches and requires a one-road (16.5 feet) buffer. The rules applies only to the public ditches that have been improved or developed since the requirement was first enacted, or about 6 percent of all ditches, he explained.

The other rule at play is the state’s shoreland zoning statute which counties are required to adopt as part of their zoning rules. The 50-foot buffer requirement applies to those waters formally designated as public waters and which have an agricultural purpose adjacent to them.

Buffers can help reduce the amount of sediment reaching waterways.

These public waters are where the bulk of the opportunity is, said Landwehr.

Kandiyohi County is among the counties which meets its responsibility to enforce the one-rod buffer requirement. Most landowners in the county understand the law and are very conscientious when farming next to these buffers, reports Loren Engelby, drainage officer in the county’s public works department.

There are 11 ditch systems in the county where the one-rod buffer requirement pertains. The 39.2 miles of waterway include 156.8 acres of buffers.

The Governor’s proposal- if the Legislature adopts it as he outlined it- would have its largest impact along what were once natural waterways in the county, but have now been channelized. There are 605 miles of open ditch, or channelized portions of Hawk Creek, Chetomba Creek, and Shakopee Creek, as well as the three branches of the Crow River in Kandiyohi County.

Governor Dayton emphasized that most farmers take seriously their responsibility as stewards of the land. He also pointed out that protecting waterways is a public purpose. “The water belongs to everybody and is used by everybody and everybody depends on it,’’ he said.

Dayton said he recognizes there is a cost in expanding buffers, but said the greater cost “is not doing it.’’ While the recent proposal resulted from last December’s Pheasant Summit and the desire to provide habitat to build back their numbers, everyone has agreed. They are really the “canary in the coal mine.’’

Conservation leaders at the Roundtable described the Governor’s buffer proposal as an opportunity to reach for the low hanging fruit when it comes to habitat protection.

There is a long ways to go.

In 2005, conservation leaders in the state adopted a pheasant plan with the goal of returning the state’s annual pheasant harvest to 750,000 birds.

To reach that goal, the 2005 plan called for protecting roughly 78,000 new acres of grassland a year until 1.56 million acres are added. It would bring the total to roughly 3.3 million in 2030.

We’ve been losing grassland ever since 2007, and we now have roughly 1.5 million acres of grassland in the state’s pheasant range.  In 2013, pheasant hunters harvested 169,000 birds and last season’s hoped for harvest was pegged in the range of 224,000.

Restoring prairie habitat is important for pollinators.

A crash course on life’s priorities: From farm life to Alaskan fishing guide

Tom DuHoux spends his summers as charter boat captain and fishing guide in Seward, Alaska.

SACRED HEART — When he wasn’t farming, Tom DuHoux was fishing or hunting.

Today, if he isn’t fishing or hunting, he’s farming.

How did he get his priorities straightened out?

The bad news is it took a snowmobile crash. The good news is he realized he could also turn fishing into a source of income.

DuHoux, of rural Sacred Heart, is back home from his eighth summer in Seward, Alaska, where he operates an ocean-going fishing charter service called Triple H. From June through August, DuHoux is captain and fishing guide of his own, 30-foot boat that plies the Pacific waters along the Kenai Peninsula. His boat carries six anglers, all of them intent on hauling in halibut, salmon, and everything from rockfish to the occasional octopus.

“It’s dam near like farming for three months,’’ said DuHoux, laughing, in reference to the long hours required. He’s out on the water from 7 a.m. to about 5:30 p.m. just about every day. Once back on land there are fish to fillet and a boat to ready for the next day.

None of this would work were it not for his bride Maria, who agreed to accompany him to Alaska. She works at Miller’s Landing in Seward, a resort and campground where their charter service is based.  She helps her husband with the duties of tending to the boat and business matters.

Maria DuHoux enjoys the outdoor opportunities Alaska offers.

Maria is a native of Germany. They met while DuHoux was stationed there in the early 1970’s while serving in the military. “I thought I’d marry a lifer and end up in Hawaii and lay on the beach,’’ said Maria, as quick to laugh as her husband. “I was on the farm raising chickens a year later, so I guess I’m adaptable.’’

She’s taken to Alaska with the same enthusiasm as her husband. She loves the scenery, and talks casually about eyeballing whales, grizzly bears and moose. It’s all a matter of the right attitude. “You can’t control Alaska,’’ said Maria. “You can’t own Alaska. It controls you. Nature takes care. You just show up.’’

Showing up at the fishing boat every morning is never a chore for her husband. There’s always lots of excitement as clients pull halibut weighing anywhere from 30-pounds to 214-pounds from water 300- to 450-feet deep. It’s easily an hour-long battle to land a big one.

And, you don’t just toss a 100 pound- halibut on the deck the way you would boat a northern pike in Minnesota. A thrashing halibut could literally break your legs if you were so careless, he warned.

There are always orcas and humpback whales, sea lions and otters to provide entertainment on the way to the next fishing hot spot. And of course, there is postcard perfect scenery no matter where you gaze.

“But I really like the people,’’ said DuHoux. Even after 19-straight days on the water, as was the case during one stretch this summer, DuHoux said the excitement and enthusiasm that clients bring never fails to energize him.

His clients literally come from all over the world, China and Russia included.  There’s a pretty good share of Minnesotans sprinkled among those coming to Seward to fish with him, he said.

DuHoux grew up on a farm where his father, Harold introduced him to the passions that define his life today: fishing and hunting. He’s passionate about waterfowl hunting, but is just as excited to pursue pheasants, deer, moose or bear as the season allows.

Fishing is a year around passion.  Even after a summer of ocean fishing he is more than happy to jig for crappies and walleyes from his ice fishing house on Norway Lake.

The snowmobile crash in 2001 threatened to put an end to it all. It had put him in a wheelchair and led to life-changing decisions. “My doctors told me I had to change my occupation. I wouldn’t be able to farm anymore,’’ said DuHoux.

Today his youngest son, James has taken over the main responsibilities for farming.  Tom helps out before and after his three-months of charter fishing in Alaska.

Months of intensive rehabilitation and metal rods in his legs made it possible for Duhoux to get back on his feet after the snowmobile accident. His recovery –and the fact that their three sons were now grown- got him thinking about operating the Alaska charter business. “If a guy could make a living at it I’d like to take a stab at guiding up there,’’ he said he decided.

By no means was he a “cheechako” or newcomer to Alaska when he made this decision. His sister Mary, every bit as outdoorsy as her brother, had moved there about two decades ago and never looked back. Ever since, her home in Anchorage has provided DuHoux with a launching point for hunting and fishing trips in the Alaskan bush.

This last fall he joined Mike Miller, owner of Miller’s Landing in Seward, on a moose hunting trip that required driving All Terrain Vehicles for about 60 miles over tundra in an area outside of Denali National Park. Miller and his son downed a large moose. DuHoux stood guard as father and son field dressed the animal. He could hear the grizzly bears grunting, waiting to come for what the hunters left.

DuHoux finished 2014 with a late season deer hunt in South Dakota, and now his attention is on ice fishing. After spring planting, it will be back to Seward. He and Maria keep a fifth-wheeler and pickup truck parked and ready there. At age 60, he’s convinced there are plenty of summers ahead yet to fish and guide.

And when it’s time to retire? Tom said he plans to continue to spend as much time as he can fishing and hunting in Alaska, only then he will refer to it as a “vacation.’’

Maria DuHoux holds a trophy from a hunt outside of Denali National Park in Alaska.

Sibley gets its due as ‘destination’ park, other area parks remain ‘core’ and ‘rustic’

Sibley State Park is designated as a “destination” park within the state system, which should help it maintain its current level of services and facilities upkeep.

NEW LONDON — With over 200,000 visitors a year, there’s little doubt that Sibley State Park is a southern Minnesota destination when it comes to tourism.

So it should come as no surprise that it is one of 16 state park and recreation areas being designated as a “destination’’ park within a state system of 66 state parks and nine recreation areas.

“A slam dunk,’’ is how Jack Nelson, Sibley State Park manager, described it. The park has consistently ranked among the top 10 parks in the state when it comes to the number of visitors each year.

The new designation is contained in a newly-released, draft system report intended to guide the park and trails system in the coming 10 years. Its aim is to help prioritize funding decisions and to make transparent the priorities within the park system.

Instead of striving to be “all things to all people,’’ the new system takes a differential approach, according to the report. Parks and recreation areas will be designated as destination, core and rustic sites.

A mother and her children prepare to camp in a tipi at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

The state will invest in the 16 “destination’’ parks and recreation areas at a higher rate to enhance the facilities visitors rely on at each.

The report identifies 42 state parks and recreation areas as “core’’ parks or recreations areas, and further differentiates them according to whether they serve as adventure, gateway or classic parks. An adventure park is known for a particular activity, such as rock climbing at Interstate Park. More attention will be given at the gateway parks to introducing underserved populations to the park and recreation system.

 

In our area, Big Stone State Park near Ortonville, Lac qui Parle State Park near Watson, Glacial Lakes State Park near Starbuck, and Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls are being designated as “core’’ parks. They will continue to be funded at a “moderate level” over the next 10 years to maintain what the report described as “close-to-home, basic, high-quality facilities.’’

The report identifies 18 parks and recreation areas as “rustic’’ in the new system. In this area, they include Monson Lake State Park near Sunburg and the Greenleaf Recreation Area in Meeker County.

The system plan, if formally adopted, would make official what many recognize is already the practice. Facing chronic funding issues for park operations, the state has been prioritizing how it allocates funding pretty much along the lines of the groupings above.

Left unanswered by the draft report is how to address the larger, long-term funding needs of the park system. The parks continue to rely on the state’s general fund for the majority of their operational needs. Two years ago a committee appointed by the legislature urged that the state increase general fund revenues to meet the needs and to find a more consistent, dedicated funding source beyond those generated by vehicle permit sales.

That report noted for the 2012-13 fiscal year, the parks needed a $9.3 million increase over the $26.6 million general fund allocation to meet needs.  The Legislature was called on again during the last session to add a $2 million “band aid.’’

Whether the upcoming Legislative session will see action to address the long-term funding needs is anybody’s guess at this point. Read through the newly released system plan, and the earlier report on funding needs called “Destination Minnesota: A New Director for Minnesota State Parks and Trails” and it is clear that action is overdue.

To view the recent draft: www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/mgmtplans/strategic_plan/system_plan.html.

Some of the last remaining, native prairie can be appreciated at Glacial Lakes State Park.

Setbacks, progress, but always lots of passion for outdoors in 2014

The discovery of zebra mussels in Green Lake was one of the big disappointments of the past year. Tyler Dick demonstrates a power washer in Spicer that was purchased in hopes of keep the aquatic invasive species from the lake.

No matter your outdoor passion, two truths hold. Sometimes you succeed in what you set out to do, but always, you’re rewarded for the trying.

It sums up the news that made our outdoor pages in the last year too. It was really a mix of setbacks, accomplishments and always, inspiring stories made possible by those who appreciate the outdoors.

Let’s start with some of the inspiring stories.

Let’s Go Fishing: On the move

This last year saw the state award the state-wide organization matching grant funds of up to $375,000 to help it organize more chapters across the state. Founded originally in Willmar in 2002, Let’s Go Fishing moved its central office to Spicer.

What mattered most of all is that it continued to offer excursions on the water for senior citizens, veterans and young people. It has served 150,00 people statewide since its start, all thanks to the more than 2,000 volunteers who have as much fun on the water as their guests.

Fishing: Expanding opportunities

People are quick to grumble when the fish aren’t biting, but truth be told the reports from this area during the past year have generally been on the good side. Lots of natural factors are at work, but fish stocking and management, and efforts to improve water quality matter greatly too.

The biggest fish story of the year came from Big Stone Lake, where sturgeon were re-stocked in the lake after a 68-year absence.

Perhaps the biggest aquatic habitat restoration project could be found close to home, where a stretch of Hawk Creek downstream of Eagle Lake was improved.

Hunting: On the mark

This year’s deer harvest was down statewide as the deer herd has declined, but reports from the Kandiyohi area were better than most areas of the state. And throughout much of west central Minnesota, the firearm season fell right in synch with the rut, and many hunters scored nice bucks this year as a result.

Speaking of hunting, this year also represented the start of a new era at the Lac qui Parle wildlife refuge. The old reservation system for state blinds has been jettisoned for a first come, first served system that is part of an overall strategy focused on a quality hunting experience.

A look back at the hunting season also means we cannot ignore the setbacks.

Concerns about the loss of natural habitat and its impact on pollinators and all types of wildlife was a focus of the first ever Pheasant Summit held recently in Marshall.

Declining habitat

From 2007 to 2013, Minnesota saw 518,201 acres of Conservation Reserve Program land removed, a 28.3 percent decline. The loss of grassland and a wet spring meant greatly lowered expectations for the pheasant hunt. The waterfowl season had its moments, but overall the migration happened fast with an early cold snap.

Passion for outdoors

Calling the decline in pheasants the “canaries in the coal mine,’’ some 300 outdoors people gathered recently in Marshall for the state’s first Pheasant Summit. It set goals to restore habitat on our landscape, and to enforce laws requiring vegetative buffers always waterways and restricting mowing along public roads.

Worst of the year: Zebra mussels infest Green Lake

No doubt, the discovery of zebra mussels in Green Lake was the year’s biggest disappointment, no matter that many felt it inevitable. The first zebra mussel was discovered on a dock in July, but by September it was apparent that the mussels have infested the entire lake.

We also reported this year on how the declining population of tullibees (whitefish) in Green Lake appears to be a result of warmer summer temperatures.

Taking on the challenges

For all the challenges, the last year also gave reason for optimism. Kandiyohi County’s Aquatic Invasive Species Task Force is working to aggressively to protect our waters, and the county will have a $247,882 war chest for the effort thanks to state funding.

Congress approved plans to improve the Upper Minnesota River watershed by approving the Marsh Lake project, although funding must yet be secured. It will replace the Marsh Lake dam with a variable flow structure that will allow for a natural, riverine environment to be restored upstream.

The Minnesota River board ceased to exist in the past year, and U.S. Department of Interior sank its Blueway program just as many believed the Minnesota River would be designated.  In response, citizens and a wide range of organizations joined to host a Minnesota River Congress and are actively looking at how a basin wide effort can continue.

Roger Benson, president of the Willmar Let’s Go Fishing chapter, and Willmar instructor Donna Hedloff chat as the local organization launched its season in May by hosting 350 Willmar fourth graders.

Making room for pheasants on our landscape

How we are going to find space for pheasants and the habitat they need was the focus of the Governor’s Pheasant Summit held Saturday in Marshall.

MARSHALL – How much grass is needed on the landscape to produce the pheasant numbers we want?

It depends on the quality of that habitat, and where we place it.

If done right, a landscape with 25 to 30 percent devoted to grass will provide the “best bang for our buck,’’ according to Nicole Davros, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource.

Davros spoke last weekend at the Governor’s Pheasant Summer. She is part of the DNR’s Farmland Wildlife Research Group. Her research focuses on pheasants and grassland habitat management and agricultural land use practices.

“We’re not asking to put grass everywhere,’’ said Davros. “We’re just asking for a small piece of it.’’

A hand carved pheasant head atop a walking stick presented to Governor Mark Dayton at the Pheasant Summit.

She said research by Kurt Haroldson, associate regional manager with the DNR in New Ulm, and others has shown a direct relationship between bird numbers and the amount of habitat. A landscape with five percent of the area devoted to grassland will produce about 30 birds per square mile.

A landscape with 25 percent of the area to grass will produce five times as many pheasants, or about 160 birds.

The best benefits are realized when there is a mosaic of habitat types on a landscape.  Providing a mix of wetlands, buffer and filter strips and protected prairie that can meet the nesting and winter cover needs of pheasants works better than simply plunking a 40-acre grassland in the middle of row-crop acres.

Nesting and winter cover areas are crucial. For nesting, pheasants need a grass area that remains undisturbed for six weeks. It provides the hen the time needed to lay and incubate the eggs.

Quality matters: An area offering brood cover will ideally include forbs mixed with grasses. The forbs provide an understory where chicks can feed on insects and scurry to mom when there’s danger.

Winter cover must provide protection from the elements and access to food. Pheasants do not have feathered legs or other adaptations that allow native species such as grouse to survive a Minnesota winter. Pheasants need thermal cover- such as provided by cattail sloughs- to stay warm when winter is at its worst.

Winter cover should also be large enough so that it does not drift in completely with snow.

Winter cover should be in proximity to food for one simple reason.

“In winter, if birds move more than half a mile they’ve moved pretty far,’’ said Davros.

Davros cautioned against any type of woody cover. While a shelter belt can offer some winter cover, trees provide a place for raptors to perch and for raccoons to gain a view of where their next meal will be found.

Pheasant numbers are declining in Minnesota as Conservation Reserve Program acres are returned to row crop production. The state has lost 490,000 acres of grassland since 2007 due to non-renewals of CRP contracts, according to information from the DNR.

Minnesota’s pheasant harvest fell to 169,000 roosters last year, compared to 655,000 harvested in 2007.

“We know that what is happening to our pheasant population is also happening to our other grassland wildlife,’’ said Davros of the consequences of habitat loss. While pheasants are a non-native species, Davros said she has no hesitation in defending the importance of providing the habitat they need.

“(When) we’re working for habitat conservation for pheasants, we know we are protecting all the other wildlife that use our grasslands,’’ she said.

Providing habitat for pheasants is also about protecting our hunting heritage, and giving young people an opportunity enjoy the outdoors.