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Doug Leier column: Lonetree full of wildlife history

Lonetree Wildlife Management Area is a place anyone with an interest in North Dakota wildlife and wild places should visit more than once every six years. But that's how long it had been since part of my game warden training brought me to Lon...

Lonetree Wildlife Management Area is a place anyone with an interest in North Dakota wildlife and wild places should visit more than once every six years. But that's how long it had been since part of my game warden training brought me to Lonetree for a test of my ability to identify wildlife.

If you approach Lonetree from the south, traveling on North Dakota Highway 3, the view itself is worth the trip. About halfway between Hurdsfield and Harvey lies the edge of the Missouri Coteau, a ridge of hills that subtly rises from the rolling prairie, a landscape molded by the advance and departure of the last glacier.

In the flat Red River Valley, you can see for miles. At the top of the coteau, it seems like you can see forever. Though alone, I acknowledged the view with a conscious nod.

Lonetree WMA is just north and east of the state's geographical center, but its history and physical features are directly tied to eastern North Dakota.

The Sheyenne River, which splits Valley City and courses south through Lisbon, then back north and east until it merges with the Red north of Fargo, begins its journey near Lonetree. The river's beginning is a major feature of the management area, and also a major reason why the WMA came about in the first place.

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Lonetree WMA was originally destined to become Lonetree Reservoir, a water storage feature of the Garrison Diversion project. Combined with the McClusky and New Rockford Canals, it would have helped provide irrigation water for 250,000 in southeastern North Dakota. Had this project fulfilled its original intent, the proposed reservoir would've exceeded the size of Jamestown Reservoir by roughly five times.

The federal government had already purchased the needed land, and a dam across the Sheyenne River was actually 40 percent complete when the plan evaporated over environmental and political concerns.

In the late 1980s, Congress authorized the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to manage the property for wildlife. While the USBR still owns the land, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department took over management responsibilities several years ago.

At more than 33,000 acres, Lonetree is the largest state wildlife management area. It's deer, waterfowl, upland game and fisheries opportunities benefit citizens from all parts of the state.

Scott Peterson manages this pearl of public land, a challenging task given the matrix of federal ownership and state management.

"At this time all property has been developed and our mode has shifted from development to management, utilizing various practices such as haying, grazing and burning," states Peterson who has been involved with Lonetree WMA since its beginning.

Lonetree offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities including hunting, fishing, camping, bird watching, hiking, horseback riding, and other compatible outdoor recreational opportunities.

Peterson notes an increasing demand for outdoor recreation "Public use on Lonetree has consistently increased over several years and is now being extensively utilized by the general public for various activities.

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With access to private land in North Dakota increasingly restricted, it is of utmost importance public lands, such as Lonetree, are managed in perpetuity. Lonetree is just one example of how the Department manages its Wildlife Management Areas consistent with our long term mission."

Management for wildlife and hunting and fishing is a priority over other activities. Game and Fish strives to include other compatible uses of this public land.

For instance, the North Country Trail, a designated national hiking and biking route, runs through Lonetree. Such trails are compatible, Peterson says, while expanding use to ATV's and snowmobiles would not be compatible.

"Plain and simple, we can't be everything to everybody," Peterson emphasized. "While a walking trail may be acceptable, an extensive vehicle trail may negatively impact habitat, which we must discern."

Statewide, the Game and Fish Department owns or manages nearly 200,000 acres, most with the same use philosophy as at Lonetree. It's a system that provides meaningful benefits for hunters and anglers who use the WMAs in eastern North Dakota, as well as in the rest of the state.

Leier, an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at (701) 277-0719 or at dleier@state.nd.us

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