Filling a Habitat Need on Five Minnesota Refuges

Giving Refuges a Larger Presence on the Land

In the early twentieth century, conservationists set up many of our country’s National Wildlife Refuges as places where ducks and geese could breed, and rest and feed during their twice-yearly migrations. Since then, habitat management on refuges has often focused on improving conditions for waterfowl.

But with the realization that other wildlife can also use a helping hand, conservationists on five Minnesota refuges are restoring and creating the young forest and shrubland needed by many birds, mammals, and reptiles, including many species whose numbers have fallen sharply in recent decades.

Conservationists at Tamarac NWR

Young forest forms the backdrop as conservationists discuss making this important habitat on Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge./C. Fergus

In 2012, Woodcock Minnesota – a volunteer-run organization dedicated to helping the American woodcock, a popular upland gamebird – received $137,000 through Minnesota’s Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program, derived from a sales tax approved by state voters. The funding will go toward making young-forest habitat on Tamarac, Rice Lake, Agassiz, Crane Meadows, and Sherburne refuges.

Says Tom Cooper, a migratory gamebird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the federal refuge system: “This new grant opens up a great opportunity to manage habitat that wouldn’t get treated through commercial logging – for instance, alder thickets that are getting too old and open to be good shrub habitat for woodcock and other wildlife, and also aspen stands that don’t have enough size, quality, or density to return a profit from timber harvesting.” The grant money, dispensed by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, will pay for cutting back aspen, alder, and other trees and shrubs.

How Logging and Brush-Cutting Help

Logging and brush-cutting may sound counterproductive for helping wildlife, but these practices are actually a boon to around 60 hard-pressed species that need shrubland and young forest. The cutting stimulates the root systems of trees and shrubs to send up thick new growth. On the five refuges, chainsaws will be whining and big machines with odd-sounding names like hydro-axes and Barcos will be cutting, shearing, and mowing down the cover to rejuvenate it, so that it will deliver a lot more value to wildlife.

Woodcock in snow

American woodcock need young forest throughout their lives./T. Flanigan

At Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota's Becker County, managers plan to keep around 30 percent of the refuge’s aspen forest younger than 20 years – the developmental stage during which the trees offer the best and most productive habitat for young-forest wildlife. On Tamarac’s 42,000 acres, around 12,000 are currently in a young growth stage thanks to earlier logging, controlled burns that have set back the successional stages of vegetation, and former farmland and prairie recently allowed to grow up in shrubs and young trees. With the new funding, conservationists will treat 22 sites ranging in size from 16 to 127 acres within the boundaries of an existing American woodcock habitat demonstration area.

Tamarac is one of three places across the woodcock’s breeding range (from Minnesota east to Atlantic Canada, and south to the mid-Appalachians) where research is underway to learn more about female woodcock and their young: how they use habitat for nesting, effects of predation, and how many of the young birds make it to adulthood. Kyle Daly, a graduate student in the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Minnesota, uses pointing dogs to find woodcock chicks in the spring, then attaches miniature radio-transmitters to them and monitors the young birds as they grow and become independent. (For more information on woodcock, visit

Golden-winged warbler

The golden-winged warbler is a threatened bird that benefits tremendously from young forest now being created in these Upper Midwest wildlife refuges./L. Johnson

Woodcock share the habitat at Tamarac with another imperiled bird, the golden-winged warbler, which also nests and raises its offspring in young forest and shrubland. The refuge hosts around 2,000 breeding pairs of the warblers, making it an extremely important location for the species, considered to have “near threatened” status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, or IUCN. Golden-wings share the same dense environs with woodcock. (Learn more at the website of the Golden-Winged Warbler Working Group.)

Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, in Marshall County in northwestern Minnesota, lies between boreal forests to the north and east and tallgrass prairie to the south and west. This refuge boasts a diversity of habitats from oak savannahs to shrublands to aspen stands. Naturalists have found 300 kinds of birds, 49 mammals, and 21 reptiles and amphibians on Agassiz. Many of those creatures need young forest and shrubland during part or all of their lives.

Starting in winter 2012-13, habitat managers will shear and hydro-ax patches of mature aspen on 200 acres at Agassiz. Aspen trees arise from clones, acres-large root systems that store energy generated by the trees in summer. When the mature trees are cut down during winter, the clones survive: in the spring, they send up thousands of new shoots, forming a blanket of thick protective cover in which wildlife can feed on fruits and berries of shrubs such as raspberry, chokecherry, and gooseberry that spring up alongside the resurgent aspen.

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer use many different habitats, including young forest./USFWS

At Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Minnesota’s Aitkin County, managers have supervised the cutting and sale of aspen timber over recent winters, jump-starting new patches of young forest in several parts of the refuge. Their share of the Conservation Partners Legacy funding will let managers renew another 100 acres of overmature shrubs near the regrowing aspen stands; the result will be a habitat bonanza for woodcock, ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers, Canada warblers, white-throated sparrows, and many other species, including more-common animals such as snowshoe hares, bobcats, and white-tailed deer.

Some 53 acres of new habitat will be created at Crane Meadows Refuge, in Morrison County in east-central Minnesota, and 200 acres of young forest and shrubland are planned for Sherburne Refuge, Sherburne County, also in the east-central part of the state.

Helping a Broader Range of Wildlife

Neil Powers is refuge manager at Tamarac. “The new grant lets us do a better job of helping a broader range of wildlife,” he says. “Tamarac was established in the 1930s as a waterfowl refuge. It provides habitat for migrating waterfowl, and also for a myriad of other species. From an ecological perspective, we want to benefit the widest range of migrating birds that we possibly can. By making young forest for those migrants, we’re also providing resident wildlife with more and better habitat – ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, black bear. It goes right up the food chain: a sustainable population of deer, for instance, benefits predators such as the gray wolves that live on or pass through the refuge.

“If we focus only internally, a refuge is like an island. But when we look outward, we see connections with other lands – tribal, state, county, and private. We want to strengthen those connections, look at wildlife more holistically and on a broader scale. We can share resources with other entities that do land management, including expertise – what works, what doesn’t – as well as the results of scientific research. Having a diversity of habitats and working with our neighbors and conservation partners gives a refuge a much larger presence on the landscape.”

Funding and Partners

Woodcock Minnesota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

National Wildlife Refuges are managed primarily to benefit wildlife, but people are welcome to come and enjoy nature as well. Most refuges have visitors’ centers, hiking trails, and observation areas where folks can watch wildlife, and offer opportunities for hunting and fishing. The following links provide information: Tamarac NWR, Rice Lake NWR, Agassiz NWR, Crane Meadows NWR, Sherburne NWR.