Environmental Review Toolkit
Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

North Dakota Department of Transportation

Replacing North Dakota "No-Mow" Sites with Wildlife Management Areas

wetlands
No-mow mitigation replacement site. (NDDOT)

Trading a good thing for a better thing--that's what the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) did recently when it purchased land to eliminate no-mow areas and create state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

Since the 1970s, NDDOT has designated approximately 8,200 acres or 363 miles of state highway right-of-way as "no-mow" or "managed-mow" areas to offset unavoidable road construction impacts to wildlife habitats and 136 acres of prairie-pothole wetlands.

The no-mow commitments were developed because replacing the impacted wetlands was not possible within the highway right-of-way, and because the federal regulations in effect at that time virtually prohibited off-site wetland mitigation. Leaving designated highway rights-of-way unmowed offered NDDOT an opportunity to make the wetlands remaining along the roadway more productive, since research indicated higher waterfowl nesting success in areas of unmowed right-of-way.

Managing the no-mow sites proved to be harder than anticipated, however. The provisions establishing the sites allowed adjacent landowners to hay the sites during drought emergencies. Farmers and ranchers applied pressure to open no-mow sites which they had previously harvested for livestock feed; and resource agencies raised concerns that during extreme droughts the sites were not providing adequate habitat values to mitigate project losses.

In 2001, the North Dakota State Legislature directed NDDOT to develop a plan for replacing the no-mow areas. Working with FHWA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGF), the NDDOT explored to explore environmentally sound, cost-effective measures to replace the 8,200 acres of no-mow and managed-mow sites throughout the state. They faced tough challenges--the large amount of land involved, a lack of available funds, and factors associated with acquiring land for conservation purposes.

The NDDOT and its partners came up with an innovative alternative involving the purchase of land belonging to the North Dakota State Land Department, which manages school land tracts across the state. A number of these tracts had not been leased for years or were only leased sporadically, and so did not contribute significant earnings to the School Trust Fund. The Land Department was evaluating other ways to increase earnings, including selling some of the land under its jurisdiction; at the same time NDDOT was looking for a suitable land base with high habitat values to replace the no-mow areas.

The NDGF visited the tracts, which are located in ten counties and which vary in size from 160 to 640 acres. The tracts feature such diverse habitats as aspen forest and shallow water lakes in the Turtle Mountains, a variety of prairie pothole wetlands, and a vast acreage of native grasslands. These habitats support more than 200 species of migratory birds and a wide array of resident wildlife. The NDGF's field reviews concluded that all of the lands could be managed as WMAs and opened to the public for hiking, bird-watching, hunting and other compatible outdoor recreation activities.

The next step: NDDOT worked with FHWA and USFWS to design a plan for turning the tracts into WMAs--the functional replacement of the no-mow areas. After 4 years, NDDOT purchased 3,461 acres of land from the Land Department and approximately 740 acres of reclaimed mine land from Great River Energy. The tracts will be managed by NDGF and annual payments will be made to the respective counties in lieu of real estate taxes.

Yes, this well-coordinated initiative is better. It will benefit farmers, ranchers, school districts, local governments, and outdoor recreation enthusiasts from North Dakota and throughout the country. It will significantly increase the number of acres managed by NDGF. It will release NDDOT from its commitment to maintain the state's no-mow areas. It will also control vehicle access to the new WMA areas and provide permanent protection of larger blocks of diverse habitat supporting a greater variety of wildlife.

For more information, contact David Leer at dleer@state.nd.us

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