WILLMAR, Minn. — Being that it is close to his home, Scott Glup gets lots of opportunities to see all that the Weber Waterfowl Production Area north of Willmar has to offer.
He flushes pheasants from its grasslands in the fall, watches broods of mallards and teal parading on its wetlands in the spring, and enjoys the spectacular show of color as prairie coreopsis and other native prairie flowers bloom through the warm season.
He liked what he saw here a weekend ago, too: pickup trucks and cars. Its parking lots were full as hunters took advantage of the 421 acres of public land to hunt waterfowl, pheasants and deer. In this year of the COVID-19, lands like this have become all the more important as people spend more time outdoors, noted Glup.
“Those public lands have been a savior for some people’s mental health,” he said.
Glup is responsible for this and other public lands. As the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Litchfield District, Glup and his staff are responsible for 153 separate parcels of public lands comprising 36,000 acres in seven counties.
When he hears criticism about public land management, he points to the Weber WPA. It may receive a little more management due to its proximity to Willmar and the consequent support of volunteer helpers such as the Boy Scouts, but it is also an example of the care public lands are receiving.
This WPA consists of a complex of wetlands along with a mix of prairie as well as oak savannah. The land was acquired in the 1960s to provide nesting habitat for waterfowl. With that in mind, its first managers planted a mix of alfalfa, intermediate wheatgrass and brome to create what’s called dense nesting cover.
“Research showed ducks like to nest in it, and they do,” said Glup, adding: “But it doesn’t provide good habitat for a lot of other critters.”
As the years progressed, the brome took over, as did trees. Glup said the district was able to work with Kandiyohi County to obtain grant funding to remove invasive trees.
USFWS staff broke up much of the dense nesting cover plantings to allow it to be reseeded with a mix of prairie plants. We understand today the importance of providing the habitat needed by a wide range of critters, from pollinators to grassland birds, whose declining numbers are of special concern. Many of the prairie seeds were hand harvested in the local area by volunteers and staff, Glup said. The volunteers collected a significant portion of the seeds from a prairie knob on the property itself.
A sculptured seeding plan was used for the reseeding. The prairie plant seeds were segregated so that those plants that do best on high ground were seeded on high ground and vice versa. The result is apparent today when the seasons bring an ever-changing flush of color to this landscape.
“(It was) one of our first attempts here at a really nice, diverse seeding using local eco-type seed to upgrade cover on an old WPA,” Glup said.
Restoring the native prairie has been ongoing. Four years ago, the Kandiyohi County chapter of Pheasants Forever used proceeds from its fundraising to obtain an Expedited Conservation Project grant from the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The chapter put up $20,000 in its funds to make possible a grant for $200,000 worth of work. Glup said the local chapter has been an especially important partner in habitat work, thanks to its ability to match funds for ECP grants. A project to remove invasive trees on the Big Kandiyohi WPA taking place this fall is another example of the chapter’s help.
“We’re getting a lot of good stuff done that way,” said Glup of the partnership with Pheasants Forever.
A partnership with Ducks Unlimited promises yet more benefits to the Weber WPA. The large wetland on the south end of the WPA, and another just south of the WPA, have become infested with carp. Duck hunters on the wetland realized what was going on when they saw fewer and fewer ducks, and occasionally watched their decoys being jerked around. Carp were bumping into the lines anchoring them.
Now, engineers with Ducks Unlimited are looking at the possibility of placing a velocity tube at the downstream end of the southern wetland to keep carp out. Glup said it appears that there is enough downward slope to make it work. If so, the outlet would be installed under a county road and the wetlands drawn down to allow for a winter kill of carp.
Years ago, Glup also realized that some of the original wetlands on the WPA had not been restored when the property was first acquired as a WPA. The district has since restored those wetlands.
Roughly 10 years ago, the USFWS also seeded wild rice to wetlands throughout the district. In many of those wetlands, the effort to return the native plant proved successful. It thrives again in waters with the appropriate conditions for it, Glup said.
At all of its WPAs, the district is taking better care to protect wetlands. Where dikes were once used to close off open ditches in WPAs, the ditches are now filled when possible. When dikes are necessary, they are made wider with shallow slopes. Quarter-inch thick vinyl panels are trenched into them to prevent muskrats from tunneling and to prevent erosion should the dikes be overtopped in flood events.
Perhaps one of the most telling decisions showing the commitment to managing the Weber WPA was made just over 10 years ago. Due to the proximity of county roads and residences, no prescribed burns had been conducted on it.
The decision was made to begin a series of prescribed burns by doing small parcels as conditions allowed. A 70-page plan was drafted to take on the challenge of safely conducting burns on this land. “In the last 10 years, every part of that WPA has had a fire on it now,” Glup said. There would have been fire this year as well, but for the restrictions of COVID.
While habitat has been the focus, work to benefit its visitors has also been conducted. Glup’s son, Matt, made it his Eagle Scout project to help develop an overlook along County Road 5.
Glup is the first to agree. There are WPAs that do not receive the management desired. He points out that resources and funding matter: Choices are always made to get the most for the available dollars, and that means not everything can be done everywhere.
He pointed out also that there are cases where surrounding residential development severely limits the ability to conduct burns or do other management work. There is even a case where neighboring landowners plowed up a roadway used for access to a WPA.
Yet overall, these public lands are being benefited by our management and investment in them. It shows. As is the case for public lands throughout the state, Glup has seen more people visiting the Weber WPA for all variety of reasons this year than ever before. “There’s almost always vehicles parked there,” he said.
It is exactly what he wants to see.