Field Notes: Roadside Resource
Minnesota's roadsides have the potential to boost wildlife populations, decrease soil erosion, save taxpayer money spent on weed control and snowplowing, and add color and variety to our travels. Unfortunately, since the days of rutted dirt roads and Model Ts, roadsides have been unappreciated, neglected, and abused.
As long ago as 1931, famed conservationist Aldo Leopold extolled the value of roadsides to wildlife and admonished those who thought "wild roadside vegetation is ugly and must be cut down." But it wasn't until more recent times that the DNR made concerted efforts to raise public awareness about roadsides. In 1984 the DNR launched a program called "Roadsides for Wildlife," funded primarily through pheasant-habitat-stamp dollars. The DNR hired Ken Varland as roadsides specialist to run the program out of New Ulm.
"Our goal was to get the word out about what a valuable natural resource roadsides can be and to provide information on how to better manage them," said Varland. "It's made a difference, but there is still a long way to go."
The program promoted sound management of roadsides through news releases, brochures, an annual poster contest for students, personal contacts with landowners, and presentations to various groups.
As a result, private landowners often chose to delay or avoid mowing to protect ground-nesting wildlife. In the program's first two years, roadside disturbance declined an average of 26.5 percent in summer along county and township roads, according to Varland. Perhaps the most notable improvement, Varland said, has been the change in roadside management practices of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and some county road authorities. "They moved away from blanket mowing and weed spraying to spot mowing and spraying," he said. "And they began planting native grasses and wildflowers along their road project areas."
Roadside native grasses and wildflowers have considerable eye appeal. In addition to natural beauty and benefits to wildlife, well-established native species crowd out noxious weeds, minimizing or even eliminating the need for costly weed control. They reduce soil erosion and aid proper drainage, so that water flows naturally and does not pond up or run off too fast. What's more, they slow and capture blowing snow, which reduces the need for snowplowing.
Today the program does less outreach because one person works part time on it. But there is still plenty of work to be done.
Minnesota has an estimated 525,000 acres of roadsides for wildlife throughout the farmland region, often in areas where there is a dearth of good habitat, according to Varland. That's roughly 970 square miles, an area almost 17 times the size of Minneapolis.
Birds such as bobolinks, mourning doves, and killdeer use roadsides. So do rabbits and other ground-nesting wildlife.
Although roadsides comprise only about 2 percent of the land base in the state's pheasant region, they account for a remarkable 25 to 50 percent of all successful pheasant nests when other good, undisturbed habitat is not plentiful.
Mowing, whether for hay or because someone wants the ditch to look like a lawn, is particularly damaging when done before August. "Pheasants are still nesting well into July and sometimes even later," Varland said. "If roadside mowing could be delayed until the beginning of August, it would make a major difference in the pheasant hatch."
Fall burning also impacts roadsides. Depending on the timing and methods, it can either benefit or harm vegetation and wildlife. Some people mistakenly believe burning will help prevent snowdrifts. Indiscriminate burning can remove critical pre-snow cover for roosting and escape, as well as residual cover for spring nesting.
ATVs and other vehicles destroy roadside vegetation and nests. DNR Wildlife estimates that vehicles, burning, and spraying disturb at least 40 percent of roadsides in the pheasant range to the point where the habitat is worthless, or even detrimental, to nesting wildlife.
The DNR Roadsides for Wildlife program continues to provide educational materials and collaborate with road authorities. However, the challenge of managing roadsides for wildlife now depends largely on the activities of private landowners.
Tom Conroy DNR information officer