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Blane Klemek column: Wildlife sanctuaries widen the world for visitors

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I recently visited a couple of old friends of mine. And I'm glad I did.

Eldor and Stella Omdahl, the benefactors of the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near the towns of Warren and Radium, Minn., are still as passionate about the Sanctuary as they've always been. The couple recently celebrated birthdays: Eldor turned 101 in January, and Stella, 92, just last month.

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Indeed, residents and visitors of Northwestern Minnesota should be proud about two Minnesota chapters of the National Audubon Society and the properties that the non-profit local Audubon chapters own and manage: the 450 plus-acre Neilson Spearhead Center, located 11 miles southwest of Bemidji, and the 800-acre WPPAS, located eight miles southeast of Warren.

NSC, which is owned and operated by the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society as both a wildlife refuge and environmental learning center, is nestled alongside beautiful Spearhead Lake. The entire shoreline of this pine-rimmed and tranquil lake is natural and undisturbed.

And WPPAS, once a property that was actively farmed, is a veritable diamond in the rough replete with wetlands, waterways, planted trees and shrubs, and wildlife galore. As well, aside from providing wildlife with much needed food, water, shelter and space, both Audubon facilities serve the public as environmental education centers.

The NSC is home to white-tailed deer, black bear, fisher, otter, flying squirrels, and even an occasional gray wolf. Bird life flourishes year around.

In the summertime, birders are routinely treated with sightings of numerous species of woodland warblers, thrushes, bald eagles, nesting loons and osprey, as well as great blue herons, wood ducks and other species of waterfowl.

Plant life is just as diverse, if not more so, at NSC. Bountiful fruit and nut-bearing trees, shrubs, and herbs provide wildlife with abundant food. Tall jack pine and Norway pine trees are prevalent, as are aspen, oak, and maple. In the lowlands one can find tamarack and black spruce.

It is, of course, a difficult task to paint a descriptive picture of NSC with words alone. But to stroll along on one of its many trails, or to sit under whispering pines overlooking the sparkling lake, or to probe Revoir Creek for signs of rare plant and animal life, or to paddle a canoe around the lake to fish or just enjoy the sound of one's canoe paddle dipping into the water, comes pretty close.

There is something for everyone, young and old alike, at NSC.

Well over 200 plants have been observed and recorded at NSC, some of which are rare, endangered, or species of special concern.

The lake and woodlands are alive with the songs and calls of birds. And furry mammals of many kinds, as well as terrestrial and aquatic insect life, frogs and toads of several species, painted and snapping turtles, fishes like walleyed pike, northern pike, and bluegill sunfish, and countless other species of fish and wildlife, inhabit the riches NSC provides..

And just as importantly, it is also a place of discovery. Every summer, children of all ages attend naturalist-led programs that teach them about the outdoor world. The education committee of MHAS organizes and administers the successful and engaging Young Naturalists Program. NSC is also a place where outdoor enthusiasts can cross-country ski, snowshoe or ice fish on winter days. And to help visitors become acquainted with NSC, a year-around caretaker lives on-site and is always there to help and guide the way. Naturalist programs and activities are also scheduled throughout the year at NSC.

The diverse landscape of WPPAS includes a blend of tree plantings, trails, observation overlooks, and wetlands and waterways. Part of an erosion-prone sand ridge - an ancient beach from glacial Lake Agassiz - has been planted to trees, shrubs and native grasses. Some parcels that were once prairie but later farmed have been restored and have effectively displaced weeds on retired farm fields with tall native grasses such as big bluestem.

Wetlands have been constructed in low areas aided by digging waterways to divert spring runoff into ponds and canals, native and non-native coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs have been planted to provide diverse habitats for wildlife and plantings of a variety of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs provide additional food and cover for wildlife.

WPPAS is also one of 43 sites along Minnesota's first-ever birding trail - the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail. Along the adjacent four-square-mile water impoundment, birders visiting WPPAS can observe tundra swans, American white pelicans, many species of migrating shorebirds, and a host of other wetland and grassland dependent species of birds.

Like NSC, WPPAS offers birding, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing devotees plenty of exercise and wildlife viewing opportunities along its scenic trails.

For example, visitors can enjoy at WPPAS the Landscaping for Wildlife Interpretive Trail. Signposts that are explained inside the trail's brochure mark the trail. The hike educates visitors about the benefits of modern wildlife management techniques that can be easily duplicated in one's own back yard.

Another WPPAS trail, the Bluebird Trail, is a two-mile mowed trail that loops throughout the property. Along the trail are an assortment of bluebird houses that are occupied by eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens and, occasionally, white-footed mice.

Also like NSC, WPPAS is an environmental education center for people with a wide range of interests. From school children discovering the many wonders of nature, through adults learning how to recapture that youthful curiosity, WPPAS provides visitors the chance to learn and grow in environmental awareness.

In 1981, Eldor and Stella Omdahl began donating parcels of the land they had owned and farmed for decades to the Agassiz Audubon Society as a gift to establish a wildlife refuge and environmental education center.

A full-time manager employed at the Sanctuary conducts wildlife management activities and administers on-site naturalist programs. Activities encouraged at WPPAS include visits by school children and other groups, self-guided interpretive trails, interpretive nature programs, taxidermy bird displays and workshops.

Many dedicated people work tirelessly at managing and maintaining these wonderful wildlife refuges as natural and scenic places, but for people to learn and appreciate the ways of the wild as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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