Jason Swelstad, with two of his children, prepares to seed their land to native prairie for bison to graze in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By Shawn Papon/USFWS

A small herd of bison graze in prairie at the Swelstads' Blazing Star Ranch near Ashby, Minnesota. By Shawn Papon/USFWS
Aerial view of Dan Gahlon's 100-acre grassland easement with numerous restored wetlands and grasslands, protected with Migratory Bird Conservation Fund dollars and Lake Christina in the background.

By Shawn Papon
Ground view of Dan Gahlon's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grassland easement in Douglas County, MN, September 2020, after restoration work was completed. Note the many trumpeter swans using the wetland.

By Shawn Papon

Working for landowners – and wildlife – in western Minnesota

By Molly Stoddard 

 U.S. Fish and Wildlie Service 

Area Wetland Management District 

Working lands work – for people and for wildlife. At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we understand that by collaborating with local landowners, we can grow both healthy landscapes and waterfowl populations – plus a strong farm economy. 

Rural landowners in Wilkin, Wadena, Douglas, Grant and Otter Tail counties partner with Fergus Falls Wetland Management District staff to provide wildlife habitat, while also allowing opportunities for grazing, ranching, haying and recreation, including hunting. While it’s possible for landowners to focus their time and attention on native habitats on their own, we can accomplish more when we work together. To do this, we buy perpetual easements that protect and restore wetland and grassland habitat on privately owned land.

An easement is a right to use someone else’s land for a specific purpose. In our case, that purpose is to provide nesting and migratory habitat for waterfowl and prairie specialist species like bobolink and meadowlark. Landowners selling easements to the district retain ownership and private control of their land, and they receive a one-time payment. We’re able to purchase easements with funds that come from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps. 

Katrina and Matt Mouser, owners of Pure Joy Farm, near Fergus Falls, raise heritage pork and grass-fed lamb. Their operation gains healthy grazing and haying fields for their livestock in return for restored prairie that conserves soil and wildlife.

Katrina Mouser explains, “By establishing grazing and hay easements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we benefitted financially by having our prairie restoration costs covered, but more importantly, we were able to restore tired farmland and drained wetlands back into thriving natural habitats that are utilized by our livestock, songbirds, waterfowl and other mammals. We are excited to think that our land will be permanently protected, and able to pass it on to someone with similar goals for the land.”

Another area landowner, Dan Gahlon, will start grazing a restored prairie on his land in Douglas County this spring after several years of preparation. Using a combination of conservation easements from the district and Ducks Unlimited, Gahlon restored a prairie landscape on about 200 acres along the northeast shoreline of Lake Christina. 

Together we removed invasive trees, restored historic wetland basins and seeded a high quality mix of native prairie grasses and forbs. Come spring of 2021, Gahlon plans to start a rotational grazing effort on the district easement.

“The prairie landscape now supports healthy populations of bumblebees, butterflies, nesting ducks, pheasants, turkey and deer,” said Gahlon. “This effort would not have been possible without great support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited staff. They helped us make the right habitat decisions throughout the restoration process.” 

Jason and Louise Swelstad live on their Blazing Star Ranch, which preserves 150 acres of native prairie remnants near Ashby, in south-central Otter Tail County. For the past five years, the Swelstads have been working with Fergus Falls Wetland Management District Biologist Shawn Papon to protect and restore 342 acres of high quality grassland and wetlands around Lake Christina. 

The Swelstads protected their land with a district grassland easement that keeps the land in grass and wetlands, while still allowing grazing. The family invested in bison – not cattle – as they recognized that cattle graze differently than bison and wanted to replicate the historic grazing patterns and preferences of bison. They now have about 60 head of bison rotating among 12 different paddocks.  

“I know there are many good people out there who care about conservation and the long-term health of our environment, just like we do,” said Jason Swelstad. 

“It is very satisfying to partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do our part to preserve our little piece of Otter Tail County for future generations. My kids think it’s really neat that the unique birds, butterflies, salamanders and prairie plants, once common in this area, will still be on the landscape for their children and grandchildren to experience. The bison grazing program allows us to preserve the uniqueness of the land and also keep the land productive,” continued Swelstad.

Fencing and watering systems were installed in partnership with U.S. Department of Agriculture Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program that’s a part of the district.  

As a result of the Swelstads efforts, their land and water responded with diverse species of prairie wildflowers in what was a formerly extremely overgrazed pasture. 

The bulk of the waterfowl habitat in the district, and across the prairie pothole region, is located on working farms and ranches. We need to partner with these farmers and ranchers, especially the cattle producers. Where we have cattle on the landscape, we also have healthy populations of waterfowl, because both cattle and ducks need grass and water. The conservation easement program that we oversee is a great partnership that keeps these lands working, all the while providing fantastic waterfowl habitat.

Solely through word of mouth, this easement program has a long waiting list of farmers and others hoping to participate in this effective collaboration. We’d like to hear from you too! We’re always looking to create new partnerships with more landowners, so please call and ask. Thanks to a combination of organizations and resources, rural residents of western Minnesota are not only working the land for people, they’re simultaneously working it to benefit wildlife too. These are outcomes that everybody can appreciate.

For more information about wetland and grassland easement programs in association with Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, please call Private Lands Biologist Shawn Papon at 218-770-9581.