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A highly mobile and skilled habitat team is strategically working across southern Minnesota to manage and improve grasslands for wildlife, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  This team of six, officially known as the DNR Prairie Wildlife Roving Crew, came together in January and is already making a positive impact on the management of state-owned wildlife habitat.

“We work on habitat projects that local DNR staff wouldn’t be able to get done,” said Josh Peterson, one of the six roving crew members. Peterson is a Slayton native who has spent the past four years working for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota out of Moose Lake, Minn. “We each bring different skills to the crew and one of our strengths is that we can move quickly from one project to another.”

The roving crew is based out of the DNR’s Lac qui Parle Wildlife Station in western Minnesota, but will regularly perform work across 32 counties in the southern part of the state.  “We travel where we’re needed,” said Walt Gessler, the crew’s leader. Gessler is a long-time DNR employee who has been working as an assistant area wildlife manager in the Tower, Minn. area. “We spend a lot of nights on the road, but that allows us to get a significant number of habitat projects done.”

The roving crew’s top priority is the prescribed burning of grasslands. Prescribed burning is the planned and intentional use of fire to burn habitat, removing dead plant material and rejuvenating the growth of grasses and forbs.  Properly implemented and timed, prescribed burning can be one of the most effective and economic ways to improve grassland habitat.  “There’s a real shortage of people in the state that are trained and qualified to do prescribed burning on public land,” Gessler said. “Our crew is capable of burning 7,000 acres per year under normal weather conditions. We anticipate that half of our time will be spent burning.”

When not doing prescribed burns, the roving crew will work on other high priority habitat projects such as tree and brush removal on grasslands. This is important work. As invasive trees and shrubs encroach on grasslands, they significantly reduce the quality of habitat for nesting songbirds, waterfowl and game birds such as pheasants. Using chainsaws to selectively remove woody cover such as buckthorn, sumac, cottonwood and box elder can be vital to maintaining a healthy grassland habitat.

“I like working on prairies, but each of our crew brings different strengths and skills to the team,” said roving crew member Joe Larson. For the past two years, Larson has worked out of the DNR’s Talcot Lake and Windom area offices. “Our work varies quite a bit, but every day we know we are making a difference for wildlife.”

“When a project is completed, there is a visually striking change in the landscape and its benefit to grassland species,” Gessler said. “Even a small project can make a big difference.”

Funding for DNR Prairie Wildlife Roving Crew was obtained through the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF). OHF was created after voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in November 2008, which increased sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent. The fund receives one-third of the sales tax dollars and may only be spent to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for game fish and wildlife.

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