LAC QUI PARLE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, Minn. -- Here on the very western edge of Minnesota, Dave Trauba lives his passion for wildlife and wildlife management day by day, season by season, year by year.
Overseeing a 33,000-acre complex of prairies, lakes and wetlands that make up this wildlife unit, Trauba and his staff attune themselves constantly to the landscape, asking:
Are the area's grasslands vast enough to encourage the successful nesting of pheasants and songbirds? Are its wetlands fertile enough to support nesting waterfowl? Are ducks and geese stopping during their spring and fall migrations? If so, how long are they staying?
"For many years in Minnesota, waterfowl and other wildlife were the byproduct of an ecosystem dominated by prairie fires and grazing buffalo," Trauba said. "Look at the state today, and there's not much of this habitat left. In the future, if we want ducks, for example, I believe we're going to have to manage for them intensively."
The Killen Wildlife Refuge, whose 110 acres are wholly contained within the Lac qui Parle wildlife management area, provides such intensive management.
Commonly called a "moist soil management" area, the Killen Refuge -- named for Owatonna wildlife artist Jim Killen and his wife, Karen -- is providing the DNR a way to attract, feed and hold migratory waterfowl in spring and fall.
Fairly simple in concept, but somewhat challenging to implement and even more challenging to replicate, moist soil areas gained fame in recent years when in the 1990s the Missouri Department of Conservation developed a number of them successfully.
Those areas now are credited with holding migratory birds in Missouri that in previous years might have stopped there only briefly, or overflew the state entirely.
With that example in mind, construction of the first phase of the Killen Refuge was completed in 2004 with significant engineering and financial assistance from Ducks Unlimited.
The idea was to impound two areas--"cells," Trauba calls them--by building nearly 2 miles of dike.
One cell is 76 acres, the other 34 acres. Water in each is controlled by Trauba and his staff, in spring by releasing snowmelt and rain water by lowering a dam, and in fall by pumping millions of gallons of water onto the cells from nearby Marsh Lake, which itself was created by a dam across the Minnesota River, built in 1938.
This watering and "de-watering" of the Killen area is intended to encourage the growth of native plants that geese and particularly ducks like to eat.
In that respect, it is not so much a "creation" but a "re-creation" of a type of habitat friendly to waterfowl that existed on the Minnesota landscape generations ago.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Trauba and DNR southern regional director Mark Matuska stepped off a dike onto the Killen Refuge and into what appeared to be a vast wave of sedges, smartweed, pigeon grass, green and yellow foxtail and a seemingly unfathomable array of other plants.
Each is the natural outgrowth of a landscape that for as long as 100 years was planted in corn and other crops, but -- after its purchase by the DNR -- was "disturbed" by a tractor and plow, then left to do what for eons it did naturally: sprout vegetation.
"These are all 'annuals' that produce a tremendous about of seed," Trauba said.
Last week was noteworthy on the Killen Refuge because water started arriving on it via a pump that can move as many as 6,500 gallons per minute from Marsh Lake.
With the addition of water, the "table is being set," as Trauba says, for the coming migration of waterfowl. And if recent years are an indication, tens of thousands of these birds -- ducks, mostly -- will descend on the Killen Refuge in October and November, spotting from the air a spectacular feast, intended only for them.
"It's all about timing," Trauba said, "moving the water off in spring to get the plants to germinate, then, in fall, flooding it when the seeds are right."
Sounds great. But look again at the Killen refuge and the surrounding wildlife management area, and it's evident that reproducing similar areas in Minnesota won't be easy.
At Killen, for instance, the DNR owns the land and can move water onto and off of it without affecting neighboring farmers and other landowners.
Additionally, Marsh Lake provides a ready source of water.
Attempting to create another, albeit smaller, moist soil area in southern Minnesota this summer has proved challenging, Matuska said, because farmers nearby don't like the idea of keeping water on the land--even if it's temporary, and even if it's the DNR's land.
Other hurdles also exist. One is that some duck advocates in the state believe the DNR should put more emphasis on securing duck-producing (nesting) areas, which usually involve large grassland-wetland complexes, rather than on units such as Killen, which are more broadly intended to serve migratory waterfowl.
In fact, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recently turned down a relatively modest DNR request of less than $500,000 to expand moist soil units in the state.
Trauba understands such areas by themselves won't return ducks to Minnesota. "They're one tool we have," he said.
In fact, at Lac qui Parle, the Killen Refuge is just one of a complex series of habitat development projects intended to benefit wildlife, particularly wetland wildlife.
Marsh Lake, for example, with some luck will be significantly altered in coming years as a plan to essentially remove the dam that created it is completed.
Established first to hold water following the dry years of the 1930s, Marsh Lake later was considered a flood-control mechanism. In point of fact, it's served neither interest well, and today it stands as a lesson in what not to do with rivers and the fish and wildlife they support.
"Before the dam, Marsh Lake was a vast area, some 85,000 acres, in spring," Trauba said. "Then, as summers progressed, there was a natural drawdown and the water body became much smaller. This 'bounce,' or rising and falling of water, exposed the moist soils and the plants that grew there. Then, in fall, when the rains came, the plants were covered with water."
A plan by the Corps of Engineers and DNR now in its final stages hopes to replace the dirty, carp-filled waters of Marsh Lake with a clean-flowing river environment whose waters, by seasons, rise and fall.
So it is that someone driving along the boundaries of Lac qui Parle, or even scanning the plant-filled environs of the Killen Refuge, might see areas that appear to them to be quite static, or unchanging.
Trauba sees the same lands and waters, understands not only what they are now but what they once were, and envisions also -- knows -- that clean water can again flow through what is now a stagnant Marsh Lake.
He knows also that seeds of native plants that once flourished in the lake's margins can germinate again.
Will the ducks that once blackened the sky in western Minnesota ever return in similar numbers?
Only when the buffalo also return, and fires routinely regenerate the prairies.
Until then, intensive management -- including not only the construction of moist soil areas and the destruction of dams and other habitat impediments but the re-establishment of wildfowl nesting areas and the passage of a federal farm bill that recognizes taxpayers' interest in a healthy, diverse landscape -- might be our best bet.