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Wildlife finds new home in nation’s largest wetland, prairie restoration refuge

By Michelle Banks
NRCS Public Affairs

Wildlife finds new home in nation’s largest wetland, prairie restoration refuge

 

WASHINGTON, Friday, March 29, 2013 - Migratory birds, water fowl and other wildlife now have a new place to call home. Thousands of acres of marginal farmland were converted back to native tall-grass prairies and wetlands in the nation’s largest restoration effort of its kind.

Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge spans about 30,000 acres over northwestern Minnesota and was once land used for, crop production, cattle and sheep grazing but is again thriving with wildlife, Greg Bengtson, NRCS Glacial Ridge project manager said.

“You’re looking at basically the size of a township,” Bengtson said. “That’s a huge area.”

Wetland area during construction
 
Construction crews restore the wetland area of the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge.

In the last 10 years, Bengtson led the conservation effort with technical advice and funding while working with 30 other partners to put about 2,000 acres a year into a permanent easement in NRCS’ Wetland Reserve Program. Most of the area belonged to The Nature Conservancy but 11 other landowners also participated in the Polk County project.

With these combined efforts, the Glacial Ridge is the largest contiguous tract of WRP in Minnesota and is the largest tall-grass prairie and wetland restoration project in U.S. history.

Wetlands provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Portions of the area are open to the public for hunting, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts out blinds were folks can go, sit and view the courtship of the greater prairie chickens in the spring, which is an interesting sight, Bengtson said.

“The males all gather and dance and try to attract a female. They puff up and have an orange air-sac. It’s a neat thing to watch,” he said.

In Minnesota, the bird is on a special-concerns list, meaning they have low numbers and are in need of more habitat. Greater prairie chickens need large expanses of grass like those found on Glacial Ridge.

Along with the improved habitat for the chicken and other plants and animals, the Glacial Ridge restoration provides other benefits for the local community.

“(Wetlands)improve the quality of the water running off the site and into the township,” said Bengtson. The new public drinking-water wells for the city of Crookston are located on Glacial Ridge.

In addition to supplying clean water, the restoration is also giving flood prevention.

“Flooding (here) is a huge issue. Restoring wetlands on Glacial Ridge will hold a lot of that water back and slow down water flowing north,” said Bengtson.

Several different agencies and universities now do research studies on the grounds, and the information can be used in the future to develop models that will help predict drought, flooding and wetland shifts to protect people and wildlife.

Minnesota is not the only state making a difference through the Wetlands Reserve Program. Visit the local NRCS service center for more information or www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/wrp.