Many of the waterfowl production areas purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have drained or degraded wetlands on them. District staff, often working with partners like Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Waterfowl Association or Pheasants Forever, then work to restore or enhance wetlands on the property to promote better waterfowl breeding habitat.
Many larger wetlands on our waterfowl production areas have water control structures, allowing managers to raise or lower water levels. Changing water levels also changes vegetation conditions, consolidates bottom sediments and excludes invasive fish. This can improve conditions for waterfowl usage.
Much of the district’s land has previously been farmed, so it is either bare soil or non-native grass such as brome. Once it is a waterfowl production area, we must replant it with native prairie plants. When we do a restoration, we try to imitate what species were here pre-settlement, to the best of our ability. We often collect native grass and wildflower seeds from another native or pre-restored unit, and then plant those seeds on the new restoration.
By definition, prairie generally has less than 5%-10% trees. Historically, this area was devoid of most trees except the occasional oak savanna or cottonwoods and shorter brush along rivers, streams and draws. Prairie species evolved in this environment, and many species of grassland birds avoid nesting near trees since they serve as hunting perches for predatory birds. Our focus is to preserve prairie integrity, so we work hard to remove trees that are encroaching on our prairies.
Keeping invasive plants out of our prairies is a never-ending battle. If left unchecked, they can take over an area and exclude native plant species. Much effort goes into managing for weeds. We try to use the least destructive control methods possible, including hand pulling, mowing or haying, or if necessary, chemical treatment with either spot spraying or broadcasting in larger areas. Chemical treatment must be done carefully, because it can harm native plants, too.
Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and an integral part of what naturally formed and managed the prairie. Fire burns the built-up vegetation litter (called duff), and exposes the soil to air. Fire also recycles nutrients into the soil. Many native plants evolved with fire, and their seeds won’t germinate without the heat of fire or another disturbance. Today, natural fires are often suppressed , due to safety concerns and potential damage to crops or residential infrastructure. Our fire staff plans and carries out prescribed fires on our waterfowl production areas to simulate the natural processes. We generally burn waterfowl production areas on a 3-5 year rotation and see significant improvements in grassland cover, as well as a reduction in non-native plants.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bases our management decisions on sound science. Therefore, we must conduct biological surveys and monitoring of our management actions to see if the results match the goals. We then adapt if needed. We conduct annual waterfowl breeding population surveys and various other ongoing studies, such as plant surveys, in the district.
In addition to managing federally owned land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Windom Wetland Management District also have habitat easements. These are on privately-owned property, where the owner has sold certain rights to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Generally, the easements restrict draining wetlands and tilling or disturbing prairie. They function as a privately-held wildlife refuge where the landowner controls all other management, such as hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does, at times, help with habitat improvement projects on easements.
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Windom WMD has been actively involved in the Trumpeter Swan Recovery Program, and has released captive-bred birds for over 10 years at our annual Wings on the Prairie event.