Chris Schultz

Outdoors Column

By Chris Schultz
Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal & Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Minn.

April 21, 2003

Roadsides for wildlife

I have often wondered why counties, townships, and the state have so aggressively mowed and managed road ditches across the southern half of Minnesota.

In fact, I tend to get very frustrated when I see a local county or township worker mowing a road ditch in the middle of June while the gravel road that same ditch belongs to is filled with washboards and potholes.

Although I do understand why a farmer mows the road ditch, I still question the need, other than the control of noxious weeds, for governments to do so.

In this week's column, I have included a press release and a table from the DNR on the unused wildlife potential of roadsides. Along with that information, here are a few other personal items on the matter that I would like to share.

­ In states like Iowa, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, many road ditches go unmowed and provide thousands of acres of undisturbed habitat for wildlife.

­ Farmers who need and depend on road ditch hay as a part of the farming operation and income are, at times, frustrated when the government mows the road ditch before the grasses are prime for harvesting.

­ Over 40 kinds of birds and animals may nest in roadsides.

­ Undisturbed wildlife habitat is a key element to the nesting success of many types of wildlife, especially pheasants and songbirds. Delaying roadside mowing until after Aug. 1 has a tremendous effect on wildlife populations.

­ Native grasses and wildflower plantings can often be more pleasing to the eye than a neatly mowed roadside.

­ If you have ever wondered when you're driving why you never see pheasants in a particular area, when you commonly see them in other locations, take a look at the road ditches in each of the areas and compare them. Grassy roadsides produce pheasants consistently. Mowed roadsides don't.

­ Unmowed ditches on rural roads create miles of excellent hunting opportunities.

Roadside potential squandered

From the DNR

They can be thriving wildlife nurseries or death traps.

Most are little more than long, lifeless strips of monotony.

They are Minnesota's roadsides. From the dirt road era of the Model T to the high-speed expressways of today, roadsides have traditionally been ignored as a natural resource. They are routinely denuded of their aesthetic and wildlife values.

"There is a high cost associated with managing our roadsides in ways that limit their value," said Ken Varland. "That cost is paid by taxpayers and wildlife alike."

Varland, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) Southern Region Wildlife Manager at New Ulm, was the DNR's first Roadsides for Wildlife Manager when that program was established in 1984.

The goal of the program, Varland said, was to raise awareness about the values of roadsides and demonstrate the benefits of managing them differently. The program enjoyed some success but was severely reduced in scope in 1996 due to budget cutbacks.

According to Varland, there are some 500,000 acres of rights-of-way along roads in southern and western Minnesota (often referred to as the 'pheasant range'.) That's an area larger than 58 of Minnesota's 87 counties. Currently, only about 30 percent of those acres are left undisturbed.

"If those 500,000 acres were managed to provide good nesting cover, it could make a huge difference in pheasant, gray partridge, mallards, and a host of other grassland bird populations," Varland stated.

Beyond what it would mean to wildlife, there are other benefits to be realized, including cost savings, Varland noted.

Planting roadsides to native grasses and wildflowers, and leaving them undisturbed until August, has multiple benefits because:

- They are used extensively by ground-nesting birds such as mallards, teal, pheasants, and meadowlarks.

- Once established, native grasses crowd out noxious weeds and thus, require considerably less mowing and spraying than the traditional roadside plantings of common shallow-rooted 'turf' grasses.

- They reduce erosion and provide proper drainage.

- Many people consider roadsides with a variety of wildflowers and grasses to be much more pleasing to the eye than 'slick' roadsides, especially where litter is apparent.

- Blowing snow is slowed and captured by the grasses, requiring less plowing.

Ill-advised burning, blanket spraying, mowing and disturbance from vehicles such as ATVs during the early summer months are the most common ways roadside nests are destroyed, Varland said.

"Wildlife are very busy during May, June and July laying eggs and trying to bring off a hatch," according to Varland. "Not only are thousands of nests destroyed every year by early mowing and other disturbances, but the hen is also often killed. That's a double or triple whammy because not only is this year's brood lost but all of her future broods as well."

(Mowing a strip along the shoulder is usually not damaging to nesting wildlife, Varland said, because most nests occur in the ditch bottom or back slope.)

Varland said the DNR has worked cooperatively for a number of years with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and other road authorities to establish native plantings adjacent to road projects.

"Native grass seeds cost only a little more than the traditional non-native mixes," Varland said. "And while maintenance costs the first three years are about the same for either planting, after that maintenance costs for natives is considerably less."

According MnDOT, establishing roadsides with native grass seed as opposed to non-native seed would result in an annual savings of about $20,000 over a five-year period due to decreased maintenance costs.

Bonnie Harper-Lore, a restoration ecologist with the Federal Highway Administration in Washington D.C., said planting native grasses along roadways and leaving them undisturbed makes sense. In certain situations, it is also law.

"A 1994 federal law required the use of native plants as much as practicable on all federally-funded road projects," Harper-Lore stated.

"Also, in 1999 an Executive Order requires all agencies and federally-funded projects to prevent and control invasives and then replant the sites with native seed. We clearly prefer native grass and forb usage in roadsides."

Congress is currently discussing the 2003 reauthorization of the transportation bill. "I can pretty much assure you that highways will be required to do more, not less, when it comes to the use of native plants and the prevention of invasive plants," Harper-Lore stated.

Less aggressive tire design may be just as effective for ATVs

From the DNR

In an effort to reduce the impact and lessen damage to sensitive soils from all-terrain vehicle use, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is asking ATV operators to consider using tires with less aggressive tread designs.

Materials for the new DNR ATV safety training course due to be released this July will include a section on reducing environmental damage through the use of tires with less aggressive tread patterns, according to Capt. Jeff Thielen, DNR Enforcement Education Program coordinator.

"In considering what type of tire is needed for your ATV, ask yourself where most of your riding will take place," Thielen suggested.

"If the terrain you will be driving on is limited to hard pack and some hill climbing, tires with more of a 'turf' tread pattern will probably suffice. In fact, many machines with turf tires will keep up with machines with much more aggressive tires in all but the muddiest and sandiest conditions.

"Discussions with industry representatives and with dealers tell us that aggressive tire designs help sell machines. However, those same representatives tell us that most people will never be in a situation where they need tires with aggressive tread patterns," Thielen said.

Riders who choose to use a tire with a more aggressive tread pattern can still reduce or eliminate a great deal of soil disturbance and damage by easing up on the throttle in areas subject to damage and erosion.

Gun training begins today

Winsted Sportsmen's Club will offer firearm safety training for all ages the weeks of April 21 and 28 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the community room in the basement of Dr. Thoennes' dental office.

Specific dates will be given at the first class tonight, April 21.

Cost is $5 and is payable to Winsted Sportsmen's Club.

Training will cover safe gun handling, gun safety in the home, care, and storage of firearms, along with hunting responsibility.

There will not be late summer training this year.

For more information call Brian Wolford at (320) 485-4237 or Steve Fiecke at (320) 485-2434.

Summer trap league begins Thurs., May 1

Summer trap league at the Waverly Gun Club will begin Thursday, May 1.

Teams or individuals are welcome to compete. For more information call Adrian Duske at (763) 658-4586

Outdoor notes

­ The nesting season for pheasants, songbirds, and other wildlife is in full swing, or soon will be.

­ The rodent war at my house is still on. The latest weapon has been poison, in a bar form, stuffed in the holes dug by the rats. At this time, results are still not confirmed.

­ With the nesting season on the go, now is good time to keep your cats indoors. Cats are very efficient killers and are probably our area's number one predator of songbirds and pheasants.

­ The 2003 Minnesota fishing

opener is set for Saturday, May 10. Bag limits for panfish also change on that day.

­ The Winsted Lake Watershed Association will conduct a Winsted Lake clean up day Saturday, May 3. Anyone interested in helping is asked to be at Mill Reserve Park in Winsted at 8:30 a.m.

A hot dog lunch will be provided for all those who lend a helping hand.

­ Look for the spring crappie bite to be in full swing as soon as the weather warms up a bit.

­ Need information on a lake or where to fish in Minnesota? Go to the DNR's Web site at www.dnr. state.mn.us and give the lake finder feature a cast.

­ League shooting at the Lester Prairie Sportmen's Club begins Wednesday, April 23.

­ Don't forget about fishing the Crow River this spring.

­ Good luck to all of Minnesota's turkey hunters.

­ Now is a great time to watch the sun travel north. At this time of year it moves at a pretty good clip.

If you watch, make note of it everyday, you can see the difference. Finally, remember it's the earth not the sun that is actually moving.

­ Take some time to get outside and watch spring happen. Soon the grass will be green and the trees will be full of leaves.

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