Earning those conservation wings, one acre at a time

Minnesota Land Trust, Audubon protect bird habitat along Mississippi Flyway

In the grasslands of Minnesota, the western meadowlark raises its bold yellow breast and pipes a joyful, flute-like melody across the rolling landscape. Others join in—the grasshopper sparrow intoning an insect-like ditty, the savannah sparrow chirping a short, happy tune.

It’s a symphony at risk of being silenced. Over the past century, Minnesota’s native prairie has been reduced to one percent of its former size; the other 99 are serenaded not by birds, but by the grinds and clanks of development and agriculture.

Nearly 300 species of birds pass through Minnesota each year, some cruising north to Canada for the summer and others south for the winter. The Mississippi Flyway represents North America’s busiest bird migration route, traversing the state and following the course of the mighty Mississippi.

“Geese, cranes, ducks, sandpipers, gulls and sharp-tailed grouse all use this habitat,” says Kris Larson, executive director of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Land Trust (MLT). With 76 percent of Minnesota’s lands privately owned, and wetlands and grasslands being converted to row crops, “we need a robust strategy to protect the best of these lands,” he says.

Minnesota’s grasslands are in crisis, and protecting and restoring them is a state-wide initiative. For its part, MLT is focusing a new habitat protection and restoration project on Important Bird Areas (IBAs), identified in partnership with Audubon Minnesota. Along with state funding from Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, and contributions from MLT members, a $30,000 contribution from Enbridge’s Ecofootprint Grant Program is making these conservation efforts possible.

“This (project) is a more concentrated effort to protect habitat for birds,” explains Larson, who notes that MLT, since its creation in 1991, has protected 50,000 acres of habitat, 9,000 of those in designated IBAs.

Throughout Minnesota, Audubon and its partners identified 54 IBAs, taking into account migration patterns, land cover, and species diversity—with several of the most important IBAs located in the northwest portion of the state.

Within this partnership, MLT plays its part by negotiating conservation easements with landowners to put restrictions on the use of the land and protect the habitat in perpetuity.

“At the successful completion of this project, the Minnesota Land Trust will secure 300 acres for the use of birds and other wildlife,” says Cindy Finch, Enbridge’s senior public affairs advisor based in Duluth-Superior. “Together, we’ve been able to achieve an important environmental outcome.”

Enbridge’s Ecofootprint Grant Program was established to support environmental restoration and improvement efforts in the communities crossed by the Sandpiper and Line 3 Replacement projects. Over the next two years, Enbridge will invest $2 million into grassroots-level environmental initiatives in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

“I think protecting important bird areas is a good use of the Ecofootprint funding,” Larson says. “When we care about birds and bird habitat, we have an opportunity to protect the best of nature—and help restore and bring back what we lost.”