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Otter Tail County Chapter Pheasants Forever and Jason Swelstad Receive First Conservation Recognition from Fergus Falls Wetland Management District


January 27, 2020

Shawn Papon, private lands biologist of the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, presents a Conservation Partner of the Year plaque to Jason Swelstad and family. From left to right: Dominic Swelstad, Matthew Swelstad, Ben Swelstad, Sean Papon, Jason Swelstad, Michael Swelstad, Jack Swelstad, and Claire Swelstad. Photo by Molly Stoddard/USFWS

Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently honored Otter Tail County of Chapter Pheasants Forever and Jason Swelstad with their first-time Conservation Partner of the Year award.

The award celebrates individual and organizational efforts in promoting and providing conservation through effective partnership efforts with the District. Recipients must have made significant and visible contributions to conservation within the five-county jurisdiction in western Minnesota of the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District - Otter Tail, Wilken, Wadena, Grant and Douglas Counties.

"We have the amazing benefit of working with many dedicated partners and individuals that who us on a recurring basis to accomplish conservation priorities," stated Neil Powers, District manager. "We are shining the spotlight on Jason and our local Pheasants Forever chapter for their steadfast participation in conservation efforts in 2019 while also cultivating positive relationships with our partners."

Jason Swelstad, his wife Louise, and their 10 children now live on their Blazing Star Ranch which preserves 150 acres of native prairie remnants in south-central Otter Tail County. They have worked with private lands biologist Shawn Papon for the past five years to protect and restore 342 acres of high-quality grassland and wetlands in the Lake Christina Prairie Core Area.

"Jason is one of the most committed, hard-working, knowledgeable and dedicated landowners in our District," said Papon. "They live and breathe prairie conservation on a daily basis. His family and friends routinely complete prescribed burns in spring and fall on their land, cut invasive trees and control noxious weeds. They share their passion with others in the community and neighbors around them."

Swelstad protected his land in perpetuity through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grassland easement that keeps the land in grass and wetlands, but still allows grazing. He invested in bison - not cattle – as he recognized that cattle graze differently than bison and wanted to replicate the historic grazing patterns and preferences of bison. He now has approximately 60 head of bison rotated among 12 different paddocks.

"I know there are many good people out there who care about conservation and the long-term health of our environment, just like we do," said Swelstad. "It is very satisfying for our family to be able to partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do our part to preserve our little piece of Otter Tail

County for future generations. My kids think it's really neat that the unique birds, butterflies, salamanders and prairie plants that were once common in this area, will still be on the landscape for their children and grandchildren to experience. The bison grazing program allows us to preserve the uniqueness of the land, but also keep the land productive."

Fencing and watering systems were installed in partnership with U.S. Department of Agriculture's Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program which is a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As a result of his efforts, the land and water has responded with diverse species of prairie wildflowers in a formerly extremely overgrazed pasture. The family enjoys seeing many species of waterfowl and other birds nest and rest on their property.

Otter Tail County Chapter of Pheasants Forever shows continued outstanding effort to permanently protect critical habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. "We are extremely grateful for the amazing partnership that first began in 2009 with the acquisition of Art Hawkins Waterfowl Production Area in southwestern Grant County," explained Erin Lentz, wildlife refuge specialist for the District.

This partnership has since accelerated the waterfowl production area program in the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District. Waterfowl production areas create more land open to the public for hunting and recreation.

Jason Swelstad, with two of his children, prepares to seed their land to native prairie for bison to graze in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Shawn Papon/USFWS

Pheasants Forever also creatively collaborates with the District on numerous habitat projects, achieving restoration goals by applying for grants together, supporting construction efforts, providing extra funding and communicating with contractors. Lentz said, "Pheasants Forever has been the most committed and dedicated partner I have worked with at the District. They continue to go above and beyond their responsibilities."

The Fergus Falls Wetland Management District is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 567 National Wildlife Refuges and 38 Wetland Management Districts. It also operates 68 National Fish Hatcheries and 81 ecological services field stations. For more information, visit


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