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Conservation groups team up to protect state's prairies

A coalition of conservation groups and agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), took a significant step forward thsi week in the protection, restoration and enhancement of the state's prairies, restored grasslands and prairie pothole wetlands.

They signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to work together for the benefit of prairie landscapes under a document called the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan. The document outlines a 25-year strategy to protect the state's remaining 235,000 acres of native prairie; restore and conserve and grasslands and wetlands; to connect and buffer prairies and wetlands; and enhance prairies and grasslands through prescribed burns and livestock grazing.

Remaining native prairie in Minnesota covers approximately one percent of its former range. Many species of fish and wildlife - include game and non-game species -- depend upon native prairie, grasslands and associated wetlands for survival. The plan recognizes the opportunity to fund prairie protection, enhancement and restoration though the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, passed by voters in 2008. But it also acknowledges the importance of conservation groups, government agencies and agriculture producers working strategically together to conserve prairie.

"It's vitally important that we leverage our individual resources and protect and restore the state's prairies, grasslands and wetland complexes," said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. "Not only are these landscapes important to wildlife and clean water, but they can provide economic opportunities for local livestock producers and landowners through grazing and haying."

At a ceremony at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday, Landwehr signed the MOU along with representatives from the following organizations and agencies: Ducks Unlimited, Audubon Minnesota, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan emphasizes the importance of large prairie, grassland and wetland complexes and connecting corridors. These complexes are the most viable means of maintaining native plants and wildlife that depend upon grasslands, and providing recreational opportunities for hunters, wildlife watchers, prairie enthusiasts, and others. Corridors and patches scattered across the landscape are important to promoting animal migrations.

Implementing the plan will also help fulfill other DNR goals and plans, such as the Long Range Plan for the Pheasant in Minnesota and the Long Range Duck Recovery Plan.

To review the Minnesota Prairie Plan, go to the DNR website at http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/mn_prairie_conservation_plan.pdf.

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NOTE TO MEDIA: The following are quotations about the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.

Don A. Baloun, Minnesota state conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service

"The Natural Resources Conservation Service continues to see the importance of grasslands in every county in Minnesota. The Prairie Plan provides a comprehensive review of the importance of grasslands and the need to support the conservation programs that continue to provide incentives to our private landowners to maintain grasslands. There is room on every farm for conservation programs that support the use of grassland as a resource protection and enhancement tool."

Steve Hobbs, Minnesota project director, The Conservation Fund

"Protecting working grasslands is not only important for the preservation of our natural heritage, it is essential for a robust and sustainable economy in rural Minnesota. The Conservation Fund believes that commerce and conservation can, and must be, compatible and we look forward to working with our like-minded partners on this immensely important initiative."

Matt Holland, senior field coordinator, Pheasants Forever

"Diverse grasslands are absolutely vital for healthy wildlife populations and are a key limiting factor for pheasants across the Minnesota range. Pheasants Forever is proud to support Minnesota's plan to protect, restore and enhance grassland habitat and prairies in cooperation with private landowners and our partners."

Becky Humphries, director of operations, Great Lakes/Atlantic Region-Ducks Unlimited

"Conservation of prairies goes hand in hand with wetland conservation on this landscape. Both are needed to provide vital habitat to a wealth of wildlife species, including waterfowl."

John Jaschke, executive director, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

"This plan lays out long-term conservation goals to maintain our current resources and to sustain Minnesota's prairie plants and animal habitats into the future. Since the bulk of grassland conservation takes place on private lands, it's imperative that we work with landowners and local units of government to implement this plan, ensuring the state's soil provides multiple benefits for clean water, air and abundant habitat."

Lee Pfannmuller, interim director, Audubon Minnesota

"Grassland birds, such as the western meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow, are the most consistently declining group of species in Minnesota and the United States. A focused prairie conservation plan that targets core grassland areas for restoration and management, and embraces the significance of the working agricultural landscape, are key measures in ensuring these important species remain part of our heritage and grassland landscape."

Rick Schultz, regional chief - National Wildlife Refuge System, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

"One of the cornerstones of conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service involves a concept referred to as Strategic Habitat Conservation. Working in partnership with other agencies, groups, and landowners, the Service looks at a geographic landscape like the "prairie region of Minnesota" and establishes both habitat and species objectives for that area. The Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan is a shining example of focusing our collective resources in specific geographic areas that most benefit the full breath of grassland species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to be a member of this group focused on the conservation and restoration of grasslands in Minnesota."

Doug Shaw, assistant state director, The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota

"Prairie is the most threatened, least protected habitat type in Minnesota. It is incredibly important to our natural heritage, our economy and for future generations. We need to protect it before it is lost forever."

Tom Landwehr, commissioner, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

"We have lost 99 percent of our original grasslands, and could lose most of the CRP in the next few years. It is imperative - for wildlife, fish, water quality, and the human quality of life - to restore remnants of this native heritage. This plan lays out a scientific, collaborative, and workable solution."

Brian Winter, president, Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society

"Prairie chickens need grass like fish need clean water. It is critical that we all work together to conserve the last one percent of native grassland in Minnesota while working to restore additional acres of grasslands within the range of the greater prairie chicken. This plan provides both the blue print and the partnerships to protect and restore grasslands, which if accomplished, will keep the booming calls of greater prairie chickens echoing across the landscape each spring in Minnesota."

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