DNR wildlife managers use multiple tools for improving grassland habitat

July 6, 2021

Habitat work across the state benefits wildlife and pollinators

Restoring, managing and enhancing grassland habitat is year-round work for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 

“We tend to get very specific questions about what we’re doing for grasslands in each season, and we like to take a step back and describe how the various kinds of restoration and enhancement projects we do fit into our overall strategy,” said Greg Hoch, DNR prairie habitat supervisor.

In the winter months, contractors remove trees that can reduce the value of prairies for grassland birds. In the spring, DNR staff conduct prescribed fires. In the fall, contractors help DNR staff harvest seed for next spring’s restoration projects. Two important tools for grassland management in the middle of the summer are haying and grazing. 

“Haying and grazing both simulate the herds of bison and elk that historically grazed the prairie. They can increase plant diversity and insect abundance. The shorter grasses create habitats where it is easy for young pheasants and other birds to forage for grasshoppers and other insects,” Hoch said.

Only a small part of a WMA is hayed in any year. This creates brood-rearing habitat but still leaves plenty of fall and winter cover. 

“Haying can also help create firebreaks for next spring’s prescribed fire season. When ranchers hay these areas, it saves the DNR staff time and funds,” Hoch said.

If local livestock producers are interested in forage, they can contact DNR area wildlife managers. These managers will determine if any wildlife management areas (WMAs) in their area would benefit from haying or grazing. If there is a WMA that would benefit, managers will identify acres within WMAs and the timing of the haying. Livestock producers can find area wildlife managers’ contact information on the Conservation Grazing Map at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture website.

“Managed haying and grazing can improve habitat quality for wildlife and demonstrate the value of grasslands to the agricultural economy and local communities,” said Dave Olfelt, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director. “We know we can help local livestock producers and increase support for conservation. At the same time, they can help us improve grassland habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In the right place and at the right time, haying and grazing benefits both wildlife and agriculture.”

Grasslands are important for a number of reasons in Minnesota’s farmland region. They provide wildlife and pollinator habitat. They also sequester and store carbon, capture potential floodwater, filter water and improve groundwater recharge. And they support many types of close-to-home recreation.

DNR area wildlife managers work across the entire state to help manage game populations, maintain and improve habitat and oversee more than 1,400 WMAs. Anyone can find out more about the work of DNR wildlife staff in their area on the DNR website.