‘Balance’ sought as state OKs WMA emergency haying

St. Paul — Hunters facing the prospect of finding a state wildlife management area grazed by livestock when they arrive this year for a bird hunt now might find that area hayed, following an announcement by the DNR last week.

According to a DNR press release, “A severe livestock forage shortage has prompted state wildlife managers to identify 922 acres on 43 wildlife management areas in 22 Minnesota counties where emergency haying will benefit wildlife.”

However, DNR officials say it only will take place where it’s actually needed.

“Haying opportunities on state wildlife management areas will only occur where habitat enhancement plans already are in place to disturb grasslands through burning, mowing, or grazing,” Bob Welsh, DNR wildlife habitat program manager, said in the release. “The DNR is glad to help livestock producers during a time of need while long-term wildlife habitat conservation and improvement remains the primary goal.”

While acknowledging that disturbance is good on WMA prairie grasses, hunter interest shouldn’t be ignored, says Matt Holland, Pheasants Forever director of grant development.

“There are real benefits to the habitat,” Holland said of haying on WMAs. “But you have to take that and balance that objective with the objectives of the hunter.”

Earlier this year the DNR said about 10,000 acres on WMAs in the state would be subject to livestock-grazing activities this summer, as, in the future, the agency moves toward a total of 50,000 acres on which grazing could occur.

“The whole grazing and haying on state and federal lands – it’s a complex issue,” Holland said.

State officials got the ball rolling on public land haying and grazing earlier this year. According to the DNR: “Because of a forage shortage due to winterkill of alfalfa and the late spring, Gov. Mark Dayton in June sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking that all federal conservation lands in Minnesota be considered as potential sources of emergency forage. He also asked state officials to identify similar grazing and haying opportunities on state conservation lands where consistent with the purpose of those lands.”

For conservationists such as Holland, the nearly annual call for “emergency” haying and grazing can become frustrating, given other factors.

He points to the rapid conversion in the state – and others – from grassland to cropland.

“When you’ve converted the grasslands to corn and beans, what do you expect?” Holland said. “Sometimes it’s a little tough to take.”

He points out that many of the acres where emergency practices will be allowed are lands purchased with hunter license dollars. But he also urged those hunters to understand the long-term benefits of some of the grassland disturbances, including haying and grazing, in some cases. With such activities – including spring prescribed burning – “productive grasslands will prevail,” he said.

The conservation grazing opportunities are located throughout Minnesota where haying could be allowed and would accomplish habitat conservation management objectives. Identified sites include areas in need of prescribed fire where burns were not accomplished; areas where haying or mowing can be done sooner than originally planned; and areas where haying can replace or enhance other planned grassland disturbances such as mowing or grazing.

Welsh said wildlife managers were not able to identify any other conservation grazing opportunities beyond those already planned because of the limited time and lack of existing infrastructure such as fencing and water supplies.

The DNR says only Minnesota livestock producers who need forage for their own livestock are eligible to cut hay on WMAs. Counties with potential sites include Blue Earth, Clearwater, Cottonwood, Faribault, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Jackson, Kittson, Le Sueur, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Mille Lacs, Nicollet, Olmsted, Otter Tail, Roseau, Sibley, Wabasha, Wilkin, and Winona.

Availability of haying opportunities was delayed to August to get beyond the peak wildlife nesting season, according to the DNR. Specific conditions will vary depending on conservation needs of a site, but generally, sites will not be hayed after Sept. 13; areas hayed will not contain tree plantings, food plots, water-control structures, wetland basins or stream banks; and cutting should begin in the center of the area to be hayed so animals have an escape route.

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