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New WMA offers 1,050 acres of possibilities

Choice WMA1.jpg
The Nature Conservancy played a crucial role in acquiring a 1,050-acre parcel of land in Fillmore County that is now the Choice Wildlife Management Area. Legacy Amendment funds were also used in making the $4 million purchase.
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CHOICE — "I'm ecstatic, I'm thrilled," Mike Tenney said.

Tenney tends to be a low-key kind of guy, but the Department of Natural Resources area wildlife supervisor was nearly giddy when talking about 1,050 acres of woods, blufftop and trout stream now in public ownership near Choice in far east-central Fillmore County.

That makes it the third largest WMA in the region, behind the giant 27,000-acre Whitewater WMA and the McCarthy Lakes WMA, about 3,000 acres of marsh, bogs, land and ponds between Whitewater and the Mississippi River.

The DNR recently posted Choice WMA, which is just east of the unincorporated town of Choice on Minnesota Highway 43 between Rushford and Mabel, he said. That made official what people in the area had known for nearly a year — the land was going to be open to hunting turkey, deer, small game and maybe even pheasants. And it was going to open up several miles of the South Branch Root River and Vesta Creek to the public.

Hunters did go on it last year, though it wasn't posted and technically belonged to The Nature Conservancy, he said. "The public seems to be hungry for public land," he said. "The people have been clamoring over this."

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Such land is becoming more important as more land is being leased out for fee hunting, he said.

There are several big blocks of state forestland in the area and they are open to hunting, fishing, hiking, camping. In fact, they are open to more things that wildlife management areas, he said. But forestland is managed for multiple uses, including logging, Tenney said, while WMAs are managed for wildlife only. Logging is allowed as long as it helps wildlife.

Tenney also said the area is going to be great for anglers because Vesta is has heritage brook trout that might be the same strain that was here before European settlement. "Take a look at the stream — it's amazing," he said.

The land is actually many smaller parcels stuck together by a man who wanted to manage the valleys, hilltops and bluffsides for hunting. He declined to name the man but the plat book for Preble Township in Fillmore County says they were owned by Osterbroen Properties.

When the owner decided he wanted to hunt more in other states, he wanted to sell the land but also wanted to preserve it from development, Tenney said.

While the DNR has the land, it has a lot of work to do, such as finding the best places for parking lots and building them, he said. Until then, "the public is going to have to be nice and not block field accesses," he said.

Choice has a west-facing bluff now covered with cedars. But they could be cut down to create habitat for rattlesnakes that are also found in the area, Tenney said. Another area could be great for turkeys and pheasant, and other birds, when turned back into the right kind of prairie, he said.

While the township will lose that land from the tax rolls, the state will have in-lieu-of-tax payments, he said.

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Years of planning

The Nature Conservancy learned about the land several years ago, said David Schmidt, the conservancy's conservation coordinator for southeast Minnesota.

His predecessor, Rich Biske, began talking with the owner in 2014, he said. "He wanted a conservation outcome,"Schmidt said. "It took two years or so, really, to get the whole thing done."

TNC was able to get about $2 million of state Legacy Amendment money along with TNC money and private donations to pay about $4 million for the land, he said. It will also seek Legacy money to do the heavy-duty management, such as clearing cedars and restoring prairie.

Like Tenney, he's walked that land and was thrilled it's being protected. "A piece of property of that size doesn't come along real often," he said.

Besides being open to the public, it protects 11 percent of Vesta's watershed, so the relatively pristine stream will have better protection, he said. "The people in fisheries are really excited about it," Schmidt said.

The Choice WMA helps TNC in its mission to protect special lands and waters, he said. There will be more wildflowers, more places for pollinators. There could be pheasants and "there are already tons of deer," Schmidt said.

Then, like Tenney, Schmidt began to use superlatives when talking about those 1,050 acres.

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"It's a great sort of complex with a variety of diverse habitats."

"It's going to open up a lot of great recreational opportunities in that area."

"This is a beautiful place."

"The birding, I would bet, will be excellent."

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