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Fed grant to help fund proposed land purchase

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has received a $250,000 federal grant to help fund the purchase of nearly 500 acres of historically and biologically significant land at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in McKenzie C...

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has received a $250,000 federal grant to help fund the purchase of nearly 500 acres of historically and biologically significant land at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in McKenzie County.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the award Monday as part of a $66 million package of Recovery Land Acquisition Grants that will help 25 states work with private landowners, conservation groups and others to protect and conserve the habitat of threatened and endangered species.

The confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers provides essential habitat for the endangered pallid sturgeon and shorebirds such as the least tern and piping plover.

"This reach of the river has the most significant population of pallid sturgeon remaining on the planet," said Bill Bicknell, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck. "They're the most genetically pure pallids remaining."

The land that eventually would become a state wildlife management area is a 495-acre tract known as the "Maurer-Taylor Property." Bicknell said the Game and Fish Department already owns about 1,700 acres of land at the confluence that were purchased in 2003, 2004 and 2006.

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The land, which lies within an oxbow of the Yellowstone River, also is in view of the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center.

"Historically, this is essentially where Lewis and Clark stood and looked up the Yellowstone and Missouri and debated which way they should go," Bicknell said.

Initial owners

While Game and Fish ultimately would own the land, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust and the American Foundation for Wildlife did much of the legwork leading up to Monday's grant award. According to Keith Trego, executive director of the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the American Foundation for Wildlife would own the land initially before donating the property to Game and Fish to manage as a state wildlife management area.

The groups followed a similar process in 2001 to establish the Joliet Ferry Wildlife Management Area in Walsh County. Trego said the plan to purchase additional land at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers has been in the works for about six years.

"It's actually multiple landowners, which is part of what makes it a somewhat complicated project," Trego said. "They approached us a few years ago when we were working on other acquisitions, and it's taken that long to put this together.

"These people come to us; we don't go looking for these projects."

Game and Fish would pay taxes on the land just as it does on other property it owns or leases. The department Monday announced it paid $434,595 in taxes in 2009, including more than $24,000 in McKenzie County.

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Hurdles to clear

Despite Monday's grant announcement, a state Natural Areas Acquisition Advisory Committee first must make a recommendation to Gov. John Hoeven on whether to approve or deny the proposed purchase, a process that is required any time a nonprofit seeks to buy land. North Dakota Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring chairs the panel, which is scheduled to decide on the proposal today.

Hoeven then has 30 days to decide whether to accept or reject the advisory committee's recommendation.

Trego said he's "cautiously optimistic" the purchase ultimately will be approved, despite opposition from county commissioners and ag interests that serve on the committee. The three previous efforts to buy land at the confluence were approved.

There's no cropping history on the land, Trego said, because it's inside an old oxbow of the Yellowstone River. And it's also too wet for grazing most of the time, he said. The tract is dominated by a mature cottonwood forest and a large backwater area.

"One of the especially nice things about this tract is there's never been an ag issue there," Trego said. "So the potential issue of taking ag land out of production isn't an issue in this particular case."

Dedicated grant

Trego said the partners in the project also are working to purchase about 500 additional acres at the confluence site, with the Maurer-Taylor purchase being the first phase. The grant, he said, would fund about half the initial purchase.

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If the governor were to reject the land purchase, Trego said the partners would have to return the grant to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the grant program.

"We certainly would not want to go back and say here, 'keep your money,'" Trego said. "We've been successful getting these grants because we've chosen good projects."

If the governor approves the proposal, Trego said the partners hope to have both phases of the project wrapped up by the end of the year.

"It's not only tremendous wildlife and fisheries habitat, that whole complex is just unique in the world," Trego said. "There are very few major river confluences like that that aren't so developed there's nothing left to protect."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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