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Feature

Students admiring a buffalo rock on the Glacial Ridge Project.

Dan Svedarsky's ecology students admiring a buffalo rock at Glacial Ridge. Parts of the rock were polished smooth by buffalo rubbing up against it, back when buffalo roamed the prairie 120 years ago.

Haven for wildlife

New Glacial Ridge wildlife refuge created near Crookston

By Pauline Oo

In summer 2000, an international nonprofit organization bought 24,270 acres of land in Polk County, Minnesota. That piece of land is home to North America's largest prairie and wetland reconstruction project. And in time, it will become the heart of the new Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge.

On Tuesday, October 26, The Nature Conservancy will donate nearly 2,000 acres of restored land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--the first piece of the Glacial Ridge refuge. It will transfer the remaining acreage to the federal agency for inclusion in the refuge when restoration is complete.

Gale Norton, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, officially designated the 35,750-acre Glacial Ridge refuge at an announcement ceremony at the Minnesota State Capitol on October 12. Glacial Ridge, which is approximately 10 miles east of Crookston, is the state's 13th national wildlife refuge and the 545th in the country. National wildlife refuges are a network of lands and waters managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve, manage, and restore fish, wildlife, and plant habitat.

"We don't really have any expanses of prairie that are [as large as the Glacial Ridge refuge] in Minnesota and with such diversity--different sizes of wetlands and different types of prairies...," says U research biologist Dan Svedarsky.

The Glacial Ridge refuge is a mix of wetlands, prairie, and farmland (more than 11,000 acres now owned by private owners or the state of Minnesota). It connects 11 state Wildlife Management Areas, two Scientific and Natural Areas, and three Waterfowl Production Areas, forming a large area of contiguous prairie habitat. When fully restored, the refuge will provide greater habitat for dozens of waterfowl and upland bird species, such as the Sand Hill Crane and the Greater Prairie Chicken, as well as moose, gray wolf, butterflies, and several large colonies of western prairie fringed orchid--a federally listed endangered species.

"[A national wildlife refuge is a] living example of how things used to be," says Dan Svedarsky, research biologist and head of the natural resources department at University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC). "It's a place for scientific study, for students and researchers to investigate the ways in which we go about restoring a landscape of prairie and wetlands. We don't really have any expanses of prairie that are [as large as the Glacial Ridge refuge] in Minnesota and with such diversity--different sizes of wetlands and different types of prairies, such as on sandy ground and on low marshy ground."

The University is one of 30 partners working with The Nature Conservancy to restore the land in this northwest region on Minnesota to presettlement condition. Svedarsky has conducted wildlife surveys and studies on the greater prairie chicken in the area and helped The Nature Conservancy locate and negotiate land purchases. (One of his identified plots came from some land left behind in a UMC student's life insurance policy. The 160 acres of unbroken or unplowed prairie is today the Pankratz Memorial Prairie.)

"Students can learn similar things [about the prairie and wetlands] elsewhere, but the fact that Glacial Ridge is as close as it is to our campus means it's accessible," says Svedarsky, who has been taking students on field trips to the area for 36 years. "If a student has a research study going on out there, they can go and collect data in the morning, come in for classes, and go out again."

The refuge is also open to the public for a wide variety of recreational activities, including hiking, hunting, fishing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.

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