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Marginal Land Turned Savannah is Haven for Wildlife

There’s an island in the rolling sea of corn and beans that is McLeod County, Minnesota, and it’s where wild things live. It’s an island of switchgrass and big bluestem, mostly, and it’s there on purpose.

Some 15 years ago, Mike Loncorich and his sons, Dean and Scott, looked at their bottom ground along the Buffalo Creek watershed and made a decision. Since that ground was mostly sand along the river and not suited for corn and beans, they decided they could put it to a better purpose. A 160-acre island of grass was born. This is a rare entity in that part of the state. “It looks much better in grass than it ever did in corn, that’s for sure,” says Dean as he scans the shoulder-high grass out of his pickup window, his 4-year-old son Landon bouncing in the backseat.

“The neighbors aren’t really doing anything like this,” Dean says. “Dad started this grass years ago when my brother and I were much younger. As a result, we grew up hunting mostly pheasants on this CRP. Other than a little piece of public wild ground west of here, this is it for conservation-type land for lots of miles around.”

Fostering Upland Birds, Deer, and Trout

Dean farms near Stewart, Minnesota, with other family members. Besides their grass plantings, they also have put in buffer zones along drainage ditches on other farm parcels to increase wildlife habitat and to control runoff. Most of the land along Buffalo Creek is wooded for 40 yards along each side of the creek with mature trees. “There are a few cattail sloughs here and there, but a large swath of land like this that’s not tilled is hard to come by,” he says. “We get a little duck hunting down along the creek.”

Dean gazes back over the prairie, a wooden homemade deer hunting stand the lone vertical figure in the distance. 

“This got started as a pheasant deal, but the numbers of birds are down now, with the last couple of rough winters,” he says. “This ground is really good for raising pheasants, as long as the tall grass stays standing and the wet heavy snow doesn’t knock it down. When it’s good and the numbers are up, if you don’t have your limit of roosters by noon, you’re doing something wrong.

“We’ve got some pretty good-looking stuff, but it’s not all that easy,” he says. “We get invasive trees like buckthorn, which have to come out, and the thistles are a bear.”

The family spot-sprays thistles and yanks buckthorn out with a skid steer loader. “The cottonwood trees like to try to grow up out in the prairie ground,” he says. “If we miss them with the mower, in two years’ time they’re too big to run over.” 

Deer, Turkey Abound

Although pheasant hunting habitat was the family’s original intent, the tall grass harbors quite a few whitetail deer and turkeys. 

Last spring, Dean and his 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, sat in a ground blind to call up a tom. “There are a few here, the birds like to hang out near water, but we don’t have large numbers of them by any means. Olivia likes to hunt with me in the spring when it’s nice out. We sat and sat and never shot at a bird, so mostly we get a lot of coloring done and eat a lot of snacks.”

The Loncorich brothers got their dad to take a break from farming last fall and sit in the blind. “Farming always comes first, but we hunt when we get a chance. So, we dropped Dad off at his stand, and 12 minutes later – just 12 minutes later – the phone rings.”

It was Mike. “I just shot!” he said excitedly. “I don’t know what happened; the smoke from the muzzle loader blocked out everything so I couldn’t see, but I just shot.”

Dean smiles, recounting the tale. “We went back, and there was the biggest buck my dad’s ever shot. It was 122 yards with open sights – a great shot for a muzzle loader.” In an island of grass.

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