Important Bird Areas

Kittson-Roseau Aspen Parkland IBA

Minnesota

The Kittson-Roseau Aspen Parkland IBA is an extensive area in extreme northwestern Minnesota. The Aspen Parkland region, extending from northwestern Minnesota through the Canadian prairie provinces, is a unique transition zone between the prairie and coniferous forest biomes. Most of the IBA lies on the lakebed of Glacial Lake Agassiz and is extremely level with the only relief provided by ancient beach ridges rising a few feet above the otherwise flat terrain. The IBA includes much of eastern Kittson and northwestern Roseau counties and a small portion of Marshall County. The western border of this IBA roughly follows U.S. Hwy 59, from near Karlstad, northwest to the Manitoba border. Much of this IBA is relatively inaccessible, with few roads.

Approximately one-third of this IBA, including most of the important core tracts, is owned by the Minnesota DNR. Of primary importance are several large state Wildlife Management Areas, including Roseau River, Beaches Lake, Caribou, Twin Lakes, and Skull and Lake Lake Bronson State Park. The Nature Conservancy owns several tracts of land in this IBA, as part of the Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area. There are significant areas of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, as well as hayfields and pastures. The semi-natural state of these intervening areas provide important connections between many of the large blocks of aspen parkland vegetation. Vegetation is characterized by a complex mosaic of prairie, sedge wetlands, aspen groves, and oak savanna. Historically, fire played an important role in maintaining the open character of this landscape. The dominant trees in this region are quaking aspen and bur oak, typically rather small in stature, occurring in groves interspersed with prairies and wetlands. Fire suppression has allowed many of these areas to develop into dense forests of larger trees.

Ornithological Summary

In the United States, aspen parkland occurs only in Minnesota. The Kittson-Roseau Aspen Parkland IBA encompasses the largest, most intact areas of aspen parkland remaining in the state. This IBA lies within the Aspen Parkland Physiographic Area (Partners In Flight Area 30), which harbors the highest number of breeding birds of any physiographic area on the continent. The complex interspersion of habitats in this IBA are particularly important because high priority habitats (sedge wetland, native prairie, oak savanna, in particular) comprise vast expanses of native vegetation. For example, the Roseau River WMA contains a continuous sedge wetland of 13,500 acres in size. Similarly, Beaches Lake WMA contains a nearly continuous sedge wetland complex of more than 10,000 acres.

This relatively remote area is far from major population centers and therefore is infrequently visited by most birders. Surveys for breeding birds, particularly nongame species, have been very limited. Most information on numbers of birds is based on surveys by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources? Minnesota County Biological Survey (MCBS). More than 260 point count surveys were conducted within the IBA by MCBS. The maximum numbers listed represent the number of point counts at which a species was detected. However, many areas remain unsurveyed. Actual numbers of breeding pairs are undoubtedly much higher than indicated.

Migratory stopover: Eleven Sandhill Crane fall migratory roost sites have been identified within this IBA. The total number of cranes at these roosts ranges from 5,830-11,725 individuals.

Species diversity: No fewer than 262 species of birds have been observed within this IBA, including approximately 175 breeding season species MCBS bird surveys documented more than 60% (150/238) of Minnesota?s regularly breeding species in this IBA in June 1991. Roseau River WMA is an extremely important area for birds due to its huge area and diverse habitats. Although dominated by open wetlands and grasslands, this WMA contains the western-most extent of lowland coniferous forest in Minnesota. During May-June 1991, MCBS documented more than 140 bird species on this WMA alone, 118 of which were during the breeding season. The total bird list for Roseau River WMA is 250 species. Another important area in the IBA is Lake Bronson State Park, with a total bird list of 238 species. The bird lists for Roseau River WMA and Lake Bronson State Park represent more than 95% and 90%, respectively, of bird species documented for the entire IBA.

Species of conservation concern (State listed species): During the breeding season, this area supports a substantial number state-listed species, including Yellow Rails, Wilson's Phalaropes and Nelson?s Sharp-tailed Sparrows. The number listed below represents the percentage of statewide records found within this IBA, based on records in the Minnesota DNR Natural Heritage database (BIOTICS). For example, this IBA has 75% of all recent Minnesota Horned Grebe records, and 14% of Wilson?s Phalaropes.
Threatened:
Horned Grebe (75%)
Wilson?s Phalarope (14%)

Special Concern:
Yellow Rail (13%)
Marbled Godwit (14%)
Short-eared Owl (6%)
Nelson?s Sharp-tailed Sparrow (20%)

Franklin?s Gulls (Special Concern) are very common during migration and throughout the summer, but there are no known nesting colonies within the IBA. One territorial singing male Baird?s Sparrow (Endangered) was found in the IBA during June-July 1991, but appeared to never attract a mate. Baird?s Sparrow is probably not a regularly occurring species in this IBA.

Species of conservation concern (non-listed species): Eighteen non-listed species of concern are frequent in this IBA during the breeding season. Shown below are percentages of Minnesota records known from the IBA for two species for which records are tracked.

American Bittern (12%)
Upland Sandpiper (13%)

Several other species of conservation concern, particularly Sharp-tailed Grouse and Whip-poor-will, are relatively common in the IBA, but were typically not well documented using MCBS survey techniques. Sharp-tailed Grouse surveys conducted by the MNDNR Section of Wildlife have been summarized for the two ?work areas? which encompass this IBA, but extend outside of the IBA boundary. A minimum of 601 males were counted on 37 active leks in these work areas. The exact numbers of birds within the actual IBA have not been determined. A database of historic (active and non-active) dancing ground locations shows 40 historic leks in the IBA, and 16 leks within the work areas outside of the IBA boundary.

Species assemblages (breeding season) of rare, threatened, or unique habitats:
a. Aspen Parkland: All 25 species listed for this type.
b. Sedge wetland: All 9 species listed for this type.
c. Native Prairie: 19 of 28 species listed for this type.
d. Oak Savanna: 7 of 9 species listed for this type.
e. Conifer Swamp: 17 of 30 species lis

Conservation Issues

Frequent fire was essential in maintaining the open character of the aspen parkland landscape. In the absence of fire open grassland and sedge habitats became overgrown with undesirable levels of woody vegetation such as willow shrubs and aspen. Much of this region is very poorly drained. A network of large ditches has already resulted in the drainage of vast areas allowing cultivation of areas that otherwise would be unsuitable to agriculture. Sedge wetlands and wet prairie, and species dependent on these habitats are very sensitive to even small drops in water levels. The current drainage system has increased the amount and speed of runoff, much of which now drains onto existing wetlands. The result is that nests and nesting habitat of ground-nesting birds may be flooded out. Continued or increased drainage would further impact or destroy shallow wetland and wet prairie habitats. Because this landscape has very low topographic relief, it can be quite susceptible to flooding. The loss of grassland and wetland habitat has exacerbated this problem. Flood control projects, or other impoundments, have been proposed in and near this IBA. Depending on their placement, construction, and operation, any such projects could negatively impact or eliminate sensitive habitats, particularly sedge wetlands. Many socioeconomic factors affecting agricultural practices and profitability could have widespread impacts on bird habitat. Changes to the amount of agricultural land enrolled in CRP could greatly influence the amount of grassland habitat. Overgrazing of existing grasslands, and in some cases sedge wetlands, is a problem on parts of this IBA. Gravel pits are currently somewhat limited in this area, but continue to be a threat, particularly on beach ridges. Expansion of extraction industries could have detrimental effects on native birds and their habitats. Invasive and non-native plants/animals are currently a moderate threat.

Ownership

Approximately one-third of this IBA (152,208 acres), including most of the important core tracts, is owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Of primary importance are several large state Wildlife Management Areas (DNR Section of Wildlife), including Roseau River, Beaches Lake, Caribou, Twin Lakes, and Skull Lake. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owns several key tracts of land in this IBA, primarily as part of the Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area. Lake Bronson State Park is also included in this IBA. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of DNR and TNC lands within this IBA. Although much of the land separating these core areas is currently under cultivation, there are significant areas of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands, as well as hayfields and pastures. The semi-natural state of these intervening areas provide important connections between many of the large blocks of aspen parkland vegetation.