AUTOMBA TOWNSHIP, Minn. — We were about to turn into a parking area for the Firebird Wildlife Management Area here when the flock of wild turkeys started to break into a fast trot in the other direction, across a field and toward a patch of woods.

Scratch one wildlife species off the list for this new public land hunting area north of Kettle River in Carlton County. On another day here you might find deer, bear, geese feeding in the fields and both sharptail and ruffed grouse.

The 726-acre plot of land is now open for public hunting, bird watching, trapping and other activities. But leave the ATVs at home; they are not allowed. Like other WMAs, this area is strictly walk-in only.

There are nice woods of pine and bur oaks down by the Dead Moose River at the south end of the new WMA, with another, adjacent 120 acres of state trust forest land also open to the public willing to hike back in. But much of the Firebird land is open, former forests that were felled by loggers then burned in the early 20th century and were then kept open by farmers. Slowly, much of the open land like this is reverting back to brush and forest, bad news for species like sharptails that require vast tracts of treeless space.

“That’s one of the reasons this property was considered such a high priority. It’s still got some real nice sharptail habitat,’’ said Chris Balzer, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager for Carlton, Pine and southern St. Louis counties. Sharptails “are just barely hanging on around here. We’re hoping we can keep enough habitat open so they can make it, at least on the best land.”

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The DNR recently took control of the Firebird land and added signs and parking areas after removing old deer stands and some piles of junk. It was acquired from the estate of longtime farmer Carl Schatz by a combined effort of the Minnesota Sharptail Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever, with money coming from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund — part of the state’s conservation sales tax dollars.

Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator for the pheasant group, said the Firebird land was important to protect for all sorts of wildlife.

“Our name says pheasants but our mission really is about wildlife habitat, and this was a good example of that,’’ Sandquist said, adding that his group also partnered with the Sharptail Association to land nearly $1 million for sharptail habitat improvement. That money, also from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, was approved by the 2019 Minnesota Legislature with work expected to start this winter on public lands where sharptail remain, both in eastern and northeastern counties.

Other new WMAs in the area include Red Clover, 280 acres of sharptail grouse habitat north of Cromwell, and Rice Haven WMA on Leeman Lake south of Floodwood, a wild rice lake that will be closed to duck hunters to serve as a waterfowl refuge during hunting season.

A sign marks the Firebird Wildlife Management Area along Carlton County 6. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
A sign marks the Firebird Wildlife Management Area along Carlton County 6. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

WMAs across state

Firebird is just the latest of nearly 1,450 wildlife management areas the Minnesota DNR oversees totaling nearly 1.3 million acres across the state, maybe best known for their pale yellow signs marking each perimeter. The land for WMAs is acquired using various funds, including a $4 surcharge on all small game licenses , federal outdoor recreation grants and Outdoor Heritage Fund monies.

In parts of southern Minnesota, WMAs comprise some of the only public-access land around. But even in northern Minnesota — with our wealth of national forest, state forest and county-managed public land — WMAs are heavily used.

Just north of Duluth, 2,488-acre Canosia WMA hosts hikers, leaf watchers and bird watchers in addition to a steady stream of archery deer hunters, grouse hunters, bear hunters and rifle deer hunters. Parts of Canosia WMA also are prime waterfowl hunting areas.

Just south of Duluth, the 4,026-acre Blackhoof WMA is prime forest for deer, grouse, bear and turkey across hilly land bisected by trout streams. There are mowed hunter walking trails that provide easy access, or you can freelance into the deeper woods.

“Blackhoof gets hit pretty hard during hunting season. But, even there, if you’re willing to walk in a mile, and then drag a deer out, you can get away from people,” Balzer said. “Some people like that, not having the ATV-access. That’s one of the selling points of WMAs.”

For more information on Minnesota's wildlife management areas, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/wmas/, where you can search WMAs by name, by county and by species of wildlife you are interested in. You'll find maps for each site and detailed information on the size and habitat of each WMA and any special rules that apply.