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image of a Minnesota wetland and farm

Working Wetlands

Ducks and wetlands in Minnesota today face a classic demand-and-supply shortage. Ducks demand more wetlands for breeding and migratory pitstops than there are wet spots left on the landscape—more than 90 percent of Minnesota's prairie wetlands have been drained (see "Wetland Complexity," September–October 2005). And most of these drained wetlands reside on private lands, which means restoring wetlands to southwestern Minnesota's duck factory on a grand scale means finding innovative ways to partner with farmers on replacing waterfowl habitat.

That's the intent of the Working Lands Initiative, a group that brings farmers, landowners, conservation organizations, and government agencies to the same table to discuss wetlands restoration (see "Duck Plan Fledges," September–October 2006). A recent conservation project fostered by Working Lands may have discovered how temporary and seasonal wetlands—those ephemeral watery spots that exist for only a few days or weeks in the spring, yet are vital resting and refueling links along the Mississippi Flyway—can be reestablished on farmland that's actively growing rowcrops.

Ortonville farmer Brent Olson signed a cost-sharing contract last spring with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife program that pays for the equipment expenses of installing new tiling and outlet gates on three patches of drained temporary wetlands on his land that, according to Olson, "haven't been wet for more than 50 years." Olson alternates between growing corn and soybeans on these patches. In years that he grows soybeans, which can be planted later in the season than corn, he will close the outlet gates and hold water on these patches until the end of April, after the bulk of the duck migration is done. The net effect: for at least five out of the next 10 years (the life of the initial contract), three temporary spring wetlands will reappear as rest stops for weary ducks.

If this demonstration project is repeated elsewhere across southwestern Minnesota's agricultural lands, the result could be the reestablishment of a vernal landscape pockmarked with wetlands that was once a boon to migrating and breeding ducks.

"I'm awfully old and bald to be sounding like Polly Anna," says Olson. "But I really believe that projects like this demonstrate that farming and conservation don't have to be a win-lose proposition."

Olson also points out that the project makes good business sense too. Better water-retention on the land will make it more fertile. "It's better farmland, and it's better for wildlife," says Olson. Farmers interested in exploring similar seasonal wetlands conservation projects on their farmland should contact DNR Wetland Wildlife Program leader Ray Norrgard at 651/259-5227 or ray.norrgard@dnr.state.mn.us.

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