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Tract 1 of southern Minnesota's Wachter Wildlife Management Area (WMA) was conveyed to the state Department of Conservation in 1954 by Worthington-area landowners Helen and Ivan Wachter.

This spring, possibly on Earth Day, official signage for Tract 17 of the same WMA will be pounded into the prairie to designate the latest addition to what has become a verdant, 473-acre natural area that draws hunters, birdwatchers, nature photographers and foragers from near and far.

"You can walk it for miles,'' said Bill Schuna, area wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "It's just the most beautiful complex.''

The 57-acre Wachter addition, assembled by Pheasants Forever (PF) with financial footing from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund, was one of 34 land parcels (including one easement) turned over to the DNR two weeks ago in the latest "designation order'' of new, state-owned wildlife management areas. The orders, completed in batches every year or two, officially incorporate the recreation lands into state maps and grant management authority to the DNR.

"It's kind of like the grand opening,'' said Jeff Tillma, DNR land acquisition coordinator.

According to the DNR, the new WMA parcels total 5,296 acres, or the equivalent of 8.3 square miles. They are predominantly located south of a line from Ortonville in the west to Hastings in the east, a mostly agricultural region that is lacking in public hunting lands. At least 30 of the new properties adjoin existing WMAs or pheasant habitat complexes to fit with an overall strategy of building large, contiguous chunks of natural space for wildlife to flourish.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle,'' Tillma said. "The more pieces you can put together, the greater the habitat complex.''

Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Pheasants Forever spearheaded many of the latest group of projects by finding willing sellers, attracting local partners and providing expertise for wetland and upland restoration. With bedrock funding provided by the historic Legacy Amendment, the latest block of WMAs came together at an approximate cost of $20 million. The sum includes local donations, grants from the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act, proceeds from the sale of hunting licenses, and contributions from a variety of conservation groups.

Jon Schneider, DU manager of conservation programs in Minnesota, said his group strategically buys marginal cropland with restorable wetlands. Preferably, the sites are adjacent to shallow lakes managed by the DNR and other sites where the agency wants to own and manage more land. Like DU's previous WMA projects, the latest sites fit with the mission of restoring habitat for breeding and migrating waterfowl.

Three new projects in particular — Indian Lake WMA near Winthrop, Goose Prairie WMA east of Moorhead and Seymour Lake WMA in Martin County — called for significant amounts of wetland and prairie restoration, including removal of subsurface drain tile to restore hydrology and create natural ponds.

In the case of Indian Lake, where 191 acres of new public land will help buffer the lake and facilitate water control measures, the WMA expansion will boost DNR's move to designate Indian's waters as the state's newest Wildlife Management Lake. The designation provides legal authority to manage water levels to enhance aquatic ecology.

"We are moving the needle strategically and creating prairie wetland habitat,'' Schneider said.

Indian Lake WMA started years ago with a parcel sold by a conservation-minded landowner who was done farming. As more pieces have been added and restored, the place has grown into a 587-acre home for ducks, pheasants, songbirds, raptors, insects, pollinators and other nongame wildlife.

Goose Prairie WMA in Clay County grew by 31%, to 642 acres in size with its latest expansion. Besides restoration of wetlands that returned big, round ponds to the landscape, the wildlife area includes 107 acres of upland grasses and wildflowers that provide nesting cover for waterfowl and other grassland-dependent birds.

DU says the complex will improve the area's water quality and provide new opportunities for hunting and bird-watching. Schneider said the return of wetlands has attracted a nesting pair of canvasbacks.

"It's not surprising,'' he said, "but terribly rewarding to see.''

The new batch of wildlife management areas ranges in size, up to 955 acres at Cupido WMA northwest of Becker in Norman County. In Le Sueur County, east of St. Peter, Diamond Lake WMA received 358 new acres that make up "the final piece of the puzzle securing an entire wetland basin.'' At Maple River WMA in Blue Earth County, 15 acres of new public hunting land also completed state ownership of land adjacent to the river.

Benefits assigned to various projects include protection of a deer wintering area, protection of native prairie remnants, "close-to-home'' opportunities to recruit new hunters and anglers, and preserving critical habitat for prairie chickens.

Eran Sandquist is state coordinator of Minnesota Pheasants Forever. He singled out the success of Wachter WMA when asked to highlight a project included in the recent batch of new recreation lands.

Goose Prairie WMA in Clay County grew by 31%, to 642 acres in size with its latest expansion.
Goose Prairie WMA in Clay County grew by 31%, to 642 acres in size with its latest expansion.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Decades ago, the nonprofit conservation group targeted Wachter for its first acquisition and restoration project. From the start, the complex has benefitted from a true partnership of wildlife and water interests, Sandquist said. The whole thing started with the Wachter family's desire to preserve a big slough.

Tract 17, the latest addition, is a 57-acre parcel that connects the WMA's main unit to its "east addition.'' The expansion converts more farmland into wildlife habitat, providing another protective filter for groundwater that's tapped by Worthington's public utility for homes and businesses.

Partners in Tract 17 include the city's Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Clean Water Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the local PF chapter.

"It's kind of a nice marriage … to leverage the dollars to do one project with many benefits within a local community,'' Sandquist said.