Collecting the wealth of the prairie

 

Judy Schulte, left, prairie specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, leads a group of volunteers and workers to harvest seeds from a native prairie.

We emerged from our vehicles carrying blue plastic pails just as Glen Huseby was driving down his driveway in a hurry to get to his next carpentry project.

He was too excited about the news he held not to stop and relay it to Judy Schulte, who had led us to his rural home site in Redwood County a few miles south of the Minnesota River.

Ever since they cleared and burned invasive cedars from the granite outcrop and native prairie on Huseby’s property, he’s witnessed a show like none he’s ever seen. Lush, green acres have blossomed with all manner and color of flowers, new ones showing up all the time.

He’s counted 150 different, native prairie species since the burn, and he’s only started. Some are endangered and rare to find, and all are eye-catching, even those with funky names like “spiderwort.’’

“I was amazed how beautiful they were,’’ said Huseby of spiderwort before he hopped back into his pickup and headed off to work.

None of this surprised Schulte, a prairie specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Windom.

She works regularly with landowners who have enrolled lands in the state’s native prairie bank program. A perpetual easement protects the native prairie, while also providing the landowner with the assistance of the DNR to conduct prescribed burns and help manage the prairie. The prescribed burns help remove invasive species like red cedars and buckthorn, allowing the native seed bed to rebound.

“Most landowners are a little hesitant to change the overall look of the property but most of them, like Glen, are pumped when it comes up,’’ said Schulte to the group she led.

The blue pails they carried were all about spreading the beauty of what Huesby was raving.

Seeds are collected by hand and dropped into buckets carried by the volunteers and workers.

Schulte led a crew of volunteers and DNR workers who had come to hand harvest native prairie seeds from the site. The seeds will be dispersed on prairie lands that are protected as part of the Blue Devil Valley Scientific and Natural Area along the Minnesota River in Yellow Medicine County. Crews have been removing invasive cedars from the site.  It’s been tree-covered and shaded for so long that some of its original, native seedbed may have been lost.

Less than two percent of Minnesota’s native prairie remains.  The surviving prairie is isolated, so many small islands on a landscape of crop lands, towns and roadways. The only way to make up for the lack of connectivity is to harvest seeds from native prairie and sow them where needed.

The seeds are intentionally collected from prairie sites as near as possible to their intended destinations, said Schulte. The goal is to maintain the genetics of the native plant population as much as possible.

Native prairie banks like the one on Huseby’s property are where the treasure trove of native seeds and their valuable genetics are to be found.

The harvest season on the prairie is a lengthy affair. Different plants produce seeds on their own timelines, and even then, it can vary greatly by location and soil types.

The DNR and private companies use mechanical equipment to harvest seeds from many prairies, but this system misses the seeds of many plants, especially those which ripen early.

That’s where the crews with the blue pails come to the rescue. Schulte said hand harvesting is the only way to assure that the greatest diversity of seeds can be collected.

Volunteers play a big role in making this harvest possible.  No expertise required.

Amelia Schuenemeyer of Fairfax was among the volunteers who toted a blue bucket on Huseby’s property this week. She is a participant in shooting sports offered through her 4-H club. One of the requirements for participation is to perform eight hours of volunteer service related to wildlife, she explained.

She was enjoying the experience. “I don’t go out in the fields a lot. It’s nice to get off the pavement and concrete,’’ she said.

Her mother tagged along, a pail in hand too. An avid gardener, Katie Grams said she was very interested in learning about the diversity of native prairie plants they found.

By day’s end the crew of six had collected seeds from 24 different prairie plants, ranging from Virginia Mountain Mint and Heart-Leaved Alexanders to Wild bergamot, water hemp and dotted blazing star. As tiny as the seeds are, by day’s end the contents of the blue pails added up to 10 pounds.

Amy Linnerooth, a water quality specialist for Nicollet County, had made the trip to volunteer because she’s done this type of work before, and knows just how enjoyable it can be. The opportunity to become immersed in the incredible diversity of a native prairie, under a blue sky and popcorn clouds, is all the reward she asked.

“It’s always fun to see the prairie up close,’’ said Schulte as she led the group into the waist-high grasses and forbs. “It’s so easy to just drive by and think it’s just grass.’’

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources schedules a number of prairie seed collection events such as this one to collect seeds for Scientific and Natural Areas. Check the Minnesota DNR website volunteer opportunities or information on the Scientific and Natural Areas to learn more.

Blazing star

A big comeback story in the works with re-introduction of sturgeon to Big Stone Lake, Upper Minnesota River system

 

Tom Kalahar of Olivia (left) and Doug Knoer of Cook hold a 66-inch sturgeon they caught on the Rainy River. The re-introduction of sturgeon to Big Stone Lake holds the promise that anglers will have similar opportunities in western Minnesota someday.

There’s a big comeback story in the works.

Sometime this September, Norm Haukos and his crew at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Ortonville will introduce 4,000-fingerling sturgeon to Big Stone Lake and end the 68-year absence of this native fish.

The last lake sturgeon in Big Stone Lake washed up dead on the shoreline in 1946.

If all goes as hoped, the six-inch fingerlings will grow to become 30-inch fish in five years. Annual stockings will continue until a self-reproducing population is established.

Haukos had lobbied for this project for more than 10 years, and is optimistic about its prospects. “We believe the water quality has come back in Big Stone to support these fish,’’ he said.

All 4,000 of the fingerlings to be introduced to Big Stone Lake have been tagged and are waiting at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hatchery in Genoa, Wis., where they were raised. Haukos is waiting for test results to be certain they harbor no disease before they can be introduced here.

Each of the 4,000 fingerling to be stocked has been tagged.

About 800 of the fingerlings are expected to survive their first year. Their survival odds improve dramatically after a year. Ten years after sturgeon were restocked in Otter Tail Lake, anglers reported catching some that were 48-inches long.

After that, who knows? Haukos assisted a fisheries crew with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources earlier this year when they stripped eggs and took milt from spawning sturgeon in the Wisconsin River to produce the fingerlings for Big Stone Lake. One of the females they stripped of eggs weighed 99 pounds, he said.

Catch and release fishing for sturgeon on the Rainy River has become an economic boom for that area as anglers from all over the state seek the opportunity to tangle with the big fish.

Haukos sees no reason why a catch-and-release season could not do the same for the Big Stone Lake and the upper Minnesota River area.

The re-introduction of sturgeon offers other benefits as well. They serve as a biological indicator, and can help us monitor the health of a river system, said Haukos.

Sturgeon can also serve as a biological control for invasive species. They are one of the few fish that will eat zebra mussels and do very well on them, said Haukos.

Sturgeon were once so abundant in Big Stone Lake that their dried carcasses were burned to power steam boats on the Red River, where trees were not so easily found, said Houkas.

The demise of the big fish can be blamed on a variety of factors.  Over-harvesting and degraded water were the chief cases, according to Haukos.  The development of dams and the segmentation of waterways adversely affected the fish as well. They need to have access to riffles and rock rapids for spawning and will migrate considerable distances to reach them. Dams block the way.

Over harvesting the fish took a big toll because the fish are slow to reproduce. A female is not sexually mature until age 25 and then, will only spawn once every four years. Each year, only about 10 percent of the adult population will spawn.

Haukos is among those who love to tangle with the big fish on the Rainy River, but he’s excited about this project for lots of reasons, this one among them:  He views it as an opportunity to bring back a fish and make right our actions of the past.

Eggs and milt were taken from sturgeon in the Wisconsin River to produce the fingerlings to be stocked.

Trail proposal could guide many to Renville County’s best

Trails in Skalbekken Park lead to both scenic overlooks and popular fishing spots.

 

Fortunate we were some years ago to have Ed Stone as our guide.

Since 1979, he’s lived in a home surrounded on three sides by Renville County’s Vicksburg Park along the Minnesota River.

Stone has a keen eye and well-developed appreciation for the natural world and especially, this bluff land wilderness. He led us atop granite outcrops that offered stunning vistas of the Minnesota River, and pointed out locations where he’s called to great horned owls and whippoorwills. He showed us cacti in full bloom on the granite outcrops, and led us down steep trails to the locations on the Minnesota River where anglers find the best action.  Others, he pointed out, seek these locations simply to enjoy a picnic or the quiet of the riverside.

There are miles and miles of adventures like this waiting in Renville County’s seven parks, in particular those along the Minnesota River.

The county is now on the verge of adopting a master plan to develop a hiking trail system that will open the parks to those who appreciate these opportunities, and don’t have a guide like Ed Stone waiting to lead them.

Mark Erickson, community and environment director for Renville County, told the Renville County board of commissioners recently that the county park board and a specially-appointed trails committee have developed a draft plan for developing a marked trail system in each of the seven parks.

The plan outlines the routes for trails in each of the seven parks.  It also describes how the trails will be signed and sets standards for the width of trails and how much vegetation to clear.

There are currently some maintained trails in the parks, but for the most part hikers are making their own way by following long-established paths. Many of the existing paths are really well-tread deer trails that hikers keep open by their use.

The trail committee and park board have been working to develop a plan for a developed trail system for just over three years ago now, Erickson told the commissioners. Parks maintenance director Andy Lang has already completed much of the ground reconnaissance for the proposed trails.

Cactus bloom atop granite outcrops in Renville County’s parks along the Minnesota River.

There’s a long ways to go, assuming the county adopts the plan as hoped.

Erickson noted that currently, the parks workers are too busy from Memorial Day to Labor Day to do anything but maintenance work. Trail development would occur during the off-season, as time allows.

He is also hopeful that the county will be able to find some outside assistance. There is the possibility of finding grant funds as well as recruiting workers from the Minnesota Conservation Corps.

There is no way to know how many people visit the parks to hike the trails, but there is no doubt. Hiking in the parks is a popular activity

A developed and maintained trail system would also open the parks to more usage during the winter. Input gathered at this year’s county fair showed that many park users would like to see trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing, Erickson told the commissioners.

Purple martins staging at roost area south of Willmar; give them a ‘brake’ and slow down

Kandiyohi County sports the state’s only roadside sign advising motorists to slow for purple martins.

WILLMAR – Minnesota roadways come with advisory signs to watch for all kinds of wildlife, from moose and deer to turtles.

But only in Kandiyohi County will motorists find signs urging them to slow down for purple martins as the birds congregate at an end-of-summer roosting site just south of Willmar.

Please do, asks Richard Doll, of Willmar.

The purple martins are now staging at the roost site, and a number of the birds have already been struck by vehicles. He counted 15 that were downed one day earlier this week; that’s more than were struck all of last year.

The birds began roosting this week, and can be expected to continue to congregate at the site until September 1. That’s when they will depart en masse for destinations in South America, primarily in the Amazon rainforest area of Brazil.

The Willmar roosting site is located in farm fields near 45th Avenue Southeast (County Road 19), about one mile south and one mile east of the Mill’s Auto Center near the Highway 23 bypass. The county recently paved the road.  The seasonal sign advising motorists that birds are staging there is erected.

Doll said residents living along the road and others familiar with the area have been very mindful of the need to slow down for the birds. He suspects the unfortunate collisions this week were the result of motorists unfamiliar with the area.

The tendency is to look up to spot the birds, but the real concern is for birds that may be on the roadway or road shoulder. They can be slow to take wing when vehicles approach.  The younger birds are most vulnerable, said Doll.

Motorists might also spot Doll near the roosting site. He maintains a purple martin colony at his home north of Willmar, and works with scientists to monitor the birds. He uses a spotting scope to read the bands on the birds that join at the Willmar roost.

He also bands birds that make his colony their summer nesting home, and in more recent years, has worked with the Purple Martin Working Group to place tiny geo-locators on some of the birds. The geo-locators are helping scientists learn about the birds and their annual migration route and destinations.

Purple martins today rely on “homes” we provide them.

At the Willmar roost, he’s been able to spot birds with bands from colonies all over Minnesota and the Dakotas.  This year and last, he’s also spotted bands that identify birds from Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. Scientists did not realize that purple martins in the two western Canadian provinces veered this far east on the northern leg of their migration.

Doll was also surprised to learn that the Canadian birds are among the first to reach the Willmar roost. He always suspected that the more northerly birds followed in the wake of southern birds on the trip to their winter homes.

The purple martins can be seen near the roosting site at the end of the day. They’re easy to spot as they congregate on power lines. They’ll swoop into the roost area- mainly a corn field today- around sun down.

No one is sure how long the Willmar roost site has existed. Doll suspects it may have been established by purple martins when wetlands connected to Lake Wakanda existed in the area where corn fields are now found. Purple martin roosts elsewhere are more typically associated with wetlands.

No doubt about this: The Willmar roosting site is an important, seasonal destination for a large proportion of the state’s purple martins. When the birds take flight at the start of the day, they show up on Doppler radar as an expanding “doughnut hole.”

 

In the eye of the storm

Trees were uprooted and toppled alongside our tent, although we didn’t hear them fall in the roar of the 60- and 70-miles per hour winds.

No more philosophical musings about whether or not a tree has fallen in the woods if no one hears it.

Lots of trees fell, many with trunks more than two-feet in diameter, all about us as we found ourselves in the eye of the storm that raced through portions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness sometime after 1 a.m. on July 22.

We never heard a single tree fall.

The roar of the 60- to 70-mile winds and the sound of our tent’s rain fly snapping like it was about to be shredded were all that we heard.

My wife Cindy, grandchildren Owen, 8, and Brynn, 13, and yours truly were enjoying our third night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and feeling pretty darn good about things as we raced the mosquitoes into our tent as dusk arrived. We were camped on Lac La Croix, a large lake on the border between the U.S. and Canada. We had entered at the Moose River North entry point west of Ely on Saturday. We camped on Lake Agnes, made our way into Lac La Croix on Sunday, camping across from the pictographs on the lake’s eastern end. On Monday we made our way west through Fish Stake Narrows and paddled just north of Lady Boot Bay before landing on our campsite across from Pocket Creek, which we would follow the next day.

All of the larger trees at the campsite were uprooted. Our tent spot and canoe were one of the few spaces not covered by the downed trees.

We had caught fish in our corner of the lake, made a great meal of them, and enjoyed the cool water on a hot and humid day. We could see the storm clouds building, but I was feeling good about things. At the last minute I had chosen to pack a heavier, Eureka Timberline Outfitter tent instead of a lighter and cooler tent for the trip. I was thinking I had made the right decision in terms of being prepared for rough weather.

We had rented a four-person, We-no-nah canoe all of 23-feet long. Expecting a storm, we carried it up from our campsite’s landing to place it behind our tent.  I tipped it over our Duluth packs to keep them dry and lashed it to a tree.

The rumble of thunder and flash of lightning woke me up, and at fist all seemed well. The rain came hard and driven, but we remained dry.

It would not be for long. There’s no exaggerating the ferocity of the winds that raced out of Pocket Creek that was aimed at us like the barrel of a shotgun.  The roar of the wind matched that of a train. What worried me more was the snapping rain fly and the fear it would be torn to shreds. I believe it would have been too, except that suddenly the back (and downwind) end of the tent went down. The ‘A’ frame poles in the front bowed as I held them from inside, hoping to keep them from snapping.

We soaked up water inside and held tight. Owen was in the middle of the tent and only the bottom of his sleeping bag got wet. He woke up long enough to ask if he was in the lake. Told that he was not, he went back to sleep.

His sister had felt a tree branch brush her as the back of the tent went down.

When the winds finally slowed, I crawled out of the tent to see if I could put it all back up again.

I could not believe what my headlamp and the flashes of lightning revealed to me outside. Large trees were fallen all around us, uprooted.  It was the branches from one of the downed trees that had clipped our tent. Our canoe was lying sideways in the downed brush behind us, unharmed. I grabbed the saw and cut the limbs and righted our tent. All four tent poles were bowed, and a portion of one pole that kept the rain fly over the front had snapped.  The fabric had not been ripped.

The rain continued until 7:30 a.m., after which we could emerge from the tent and start anew. We made breakfast, packed up and made our way down the creek to our next destination. We managed to repair the tent and gusty winds and sunshine allowed us to dry our sleeping bags and tent by nightfall.

The following day, we met one of the U.S. Forest Service crews that had come to clean up in the wake of the storm. We learned from them how others had been injured at campsites located a few miles east and west of our location. The damage was not as widespread as the Boundary Waters Blowdown of July 4, 1999, but there were pockets within this storm’s path where bursts of wind had flattened trees with the same effect.

“Dang,’’ the ranger said when I pointed out where we had camped. She had been there, and could only express surprise we had paddled away unharmed.

If left us much to ponder.

Owen and Brynn hold a stringer of walleye and northern pike they caught.