Strubbe's legacy in peril?

Local wildlife groups are up in arms. Members of the Alberta Wildlife Federation and the Chokio Sportsmen's Club have heard rumors that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has plans to cut down the "big woods" north of Alberta. Apparently the rumo...

Local wildlife groups are up in arms.

Members of the Alberta Wildlife Federation and the Chokio Sportsmen's Club have heard rumors that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has plans to cut down the "big woods" north of Alberta.

Apparently the rumors are not entirely accurate.

The "big woods" will continue to stand - for this year, at least.

Local hunters and sporting enthusiasts refer to the large stand of trees in the Pepperton WPA, located four miles north of Alberta, as the "big woods." Most area residents call the Pepperton Waterfowl Production Area "the Strubbe wildlife area," named for Ernest Strubbe. Strubbe sold tracts of land to the USFWS for a waterfowl production area.


Steve Delehanty, Morris Wetland Management District Manager, said, "We have no plans to cut down trees in the Pepperton WPA. At least not during 2009." Delehanty did say, though, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does have plans in other WPAs for restoring prairie grasslands, which means tree removal.

"All wildlife management involves trade-offs. Planting trees helps some species and harms others. Just as removing trees helps some species and harms others. It's the wildlife manager's job to balance the needs of various wildlife species as well as the needs of the public for outdoor recreation. Overall, we tend to lack large, open tracts of grassland in Stevens County; large treeless grasslands are a critical yet largely unmet need for wildlife in Stevens County and WPAs can help provide some of that habitat," said Delehanty.

Perhaps it's a difference in philosophies or differences of opinion between pheasant and deer hunters versus waterfowl hunters. Or it may be the "little guys" taking on the big Federal agency. Or perhaps it's local folks wanting to preserve the memory of Ernie Strubbe and his efforts on the behalf of wildlife.

Whatever the motivation, the wildlife groups and the local wetland district are at odds.

Pepperton WPA and

Ernest Strubbe

The Pepperton Waterfowl Production Area covers nearly 918 acres. It is a combination of grassland, sloughs, and trees.

The USFWS purchased acreage from many different landowners over the years. Ernest Strubbe sold two different parcels to the USFWS, one in 1972 and the other, on which the "big woods" is located, in 1981.


Ernest Strubbe is a much beloved member of Alberta and Stevens County and is fondly remembered by many for his activism on behalf of conservation and wildlife.

He moved to Pepperton Township in 1924 with his parents when he was about ten years old. Ernie resided on the family farm until his death in 1989. He graduated from Alberta High school in 1932 and served four years in World War II with the Army's 17th Veterinary Evacuation Hospital Unit (1942-1945).

Ernest Strubbe received local, state and national recognition throughout his life for contributions as a conservationist, educator, wildlife artist, ornithologist, and photographer. In 1960 Strubbe was named Minnesota's Outstanding Conservationist.

As an ornithologist, he was known for his recorded and published lifelong sightings and studies of bird species observed in Stevens County. He wrote about, painted and drew the countless birds he watched, recording 220 bird species out of a possible 300. The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer in 1967 wrote that Strubbe "is fast becoming recognized as one of the Upper Midwest's foremost bird artists." His paintings and photographs graced the covers of the Volunteer, the Farm Journal Magazine, several Minnesota newspapers, and countless other publications.

"Ernest Strubbe Day" was declared in Stevens County on May 17, 1969. According to local newspapers, over 500 people attended an evening program held at the Alberta High School where Strubbe was honored by his neighbors and friends for his dedication to the cause of conservation ". . . and to the development of greater public understanding of, and appreciation for, the area's natural resources."

Strubbe was one of the founding members and an active officer of the Alberta Wildlife Federation, which boasted a membership of 170 in 1964. It is this same group that is taking exception to the USFWS tree removal philosophy.

The "big woods"

According to several local residents, much of the big woods was planted by Strubbe. Several publications through the years refer to the stand of trees. The 1967 Minnesota Conservation Volunteer wrote that Strubbe "built his own arboretum on his Stevens County Farm. Here, Stevens County youngsters ranging from Boy Scouts to FFA members may study at their leisure a fascinating array of deciduous and coniferous trees."


The magazine again featured Strubbe in 1971, mentioning the stand of trees he planted: "He [Strubbe] has set aside, on this rich prairie soil, too generous a tract for an arboretum, wherein are planted fruit trees which are rarely picked, and cover plantings which cradle crude wooden nesting boxes for owls, bluebirds..." Apparently Ernie planted the fruit trees to feed the local wildlife.

In 1969, the Chokio Review also wrote of Strubbe's trees: "The wildlife tree planting area on the Strubbe farm has been the scene of many tours by 4-H Club members. On each occasion Ernie has found time to tell the 4-H Club groups about the species of trees and shrubs grown and the many birds and animals that make this their home."

The "big woods" are well documented in local and state periodicals. It is the preservation of these woods that the Alberta Wildlife Federation is promoting - in part because of the direct connection with Ernest Strubbe, and in part because of the cover it provides for deer and other wildlife hunted by the sportsmen groups.

Ken Jost, a longtime member of the Alberta Wildlife Federation, said, "The fact is, the two most common species in this area are pheasants and deer, and both thrive in areas where there are trees."

Deb Anderson, Alberta, has been a member of the AWF for the past ten years. She said the Federation has taken a stance in opposition to any tree removal on the Pepperton WPA and have recently sent out postcards alerting fellow sportsmen of the USFWS policy of tree removal. "We just want to give a 'heads up' and we may start a petition process," she said.

Anderson noted, "Any stand of trees in this country is important. The trees provide cover for deer and other wildlife in the winter from the wind. People have been upset with the removal of standing trees. We understand the agencies think they will prevent hawks and other predators from killing waterfowl and pheasants. I think they [USFWS] mean well by removing trees, but it's a Catch 22. These trees are necessary shelter for deer. Taking them away will take away their winter habitat."

The AWF has also been working and talking with the local chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Chokio Sportsmen's Club. The local sportsmen's club is also opposed to the removal of the tree stand. Club member Keith Marty of Chokio said, "I am familiar with that area having farmed near there and as a pilot having flown over that area many times. A large number of deer winter in that area yearly. Removal of the trees would open that wildlife area to the winter winds and snow storms. The cattail sloughs would also fill with snow and be rendered useless as shelter for the deer and other wildlife."

Both groups strongly oppose the removal of the tree stand, noting that the USFWS philosophy doesn't hold water for them. Jost said, "The theory that removing the trees will prevent raptors from killing the waterfowl does not hold up. There is a power line that runs through the WPA. The raptors sit on the lines." Jost believes that the USFWS is using this as an "evolving rational for their behavior." And that behavior, according to Jost, has been to remove stands of trees and tree lines. "All you have to do is look around the county," said Jost.



The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is a federal agency responsible for the management of migratory bird populations. The Morris Wetland Management District is the local office for the USFWS and is responsible for managing federally owned waterfowl production areas in an eight-county area, including Stevens County. The district includes 244 waterfowl production areas, encompassing over 50,000 acres.

According to Delehanty, "Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) are parcels of federal land managed to provide optimal habitat for breeding waterfowl and other grassland and wetland dependent migratory birds." WPA land is purchased with money derived from the sale of duck stamps, formally known as the federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps.

Local land is purchased for waterfowl production areas at "fair market value from willing sellers only (nobody is forced to sell their land to create a WPA)," said Delehanty.

Jost predicted that if the USFWS proceeds with the removal of the "big woods," it might be difficult to obtain future land. He said, "The USFWS will not be very popular if they destroy the woods. And that's a vast understatement."

I think it unlikely that they would get any more land from area farmers."

Delehanty explained the USFWS policy. "Federal law directs us to manage waterfowl production areas and national wildlife refuges across the country to benefit the wildlife first. My job as the manager of the Morris Wetland Management District is to manage waterfowl production areas to maximize their benefit to waterfowl first and other migratory birds second; everything else comes after that, though of course I also work hard to make waterfowl production areas enjoyable for people too - after all, it's the people who own this land. I am just privileged to help take care of it for a time."

The USFWS management of WPAs includes restoring the tallgrass prairie and the nesting habitat it provides for migratory birds. It is estimated that originally tallgrass prairie included about 25 million acres in Minnesota and Iowa. Today only about 300,000 acres remain in the two states.


USFWS, wildlife biologists and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources want to restore that prairie. And that often means removing trees. It has a twofold purpose - restoring natural prairie land that had few trees, and removing cover for predators that threaten nesting waterfowl, pheasants and other non-game bird species.

Delehanty noted: "The Fish and Wildlife Service strives to benefit those migratory bird species whose populations are most imperiled. In western Minnesota, that means we pay particular attention to birds which depend on either healthy, open grasslands or healthy wetlands. Grassland dependent birds are suffering the most severe population decline of any group of birds in North America. Once common Minnesota birds like western meadowlarks and bobolinks are much less common today than they were just a few decades ago."

In regard to the "big woods" on the Pepperton WPA, Delehanty said, "We are doing active tree removal in grassland areas, but we have no immediate plans in that area. We don't plan to cut those trees down."

Delehanty went on to say, "The Pepperton Waterfowl Production Area north of Alberta is one of our premier WPAs. It is a fine area for waterfowl and other wildlife. Pepperton WPA would be better habitat for waterfowl and some other birds if we removed the trees, but we have no immediate plans to do so.

"When we do remove trees from Pepperton WPA, assuming we do someday, it would be an open question whether we would remove all the trees, including the large tree grove, or just the smaller clumps of trees and tree lines. In the end, that would be a decision based on the sound professional judgment of Fish and Wildlife staff tempered with local input, scientific consensus, and national priorities."

However, Delehanty noted that the Morris Wetland district will take into account local opinions. He said, "We welcome input. Before we do any tree removal we will seek input. In the end, I work for the people in Texas where the migratory birds end up, and I work for the local people. On something like this [removal of the "big woods"] we would try to do some reaching out."

He encouraged all concerned to "call and chat. I would be happy to meet with neighbors, township officials or whoever else is concerned. The Fish and Wildlife Service staff do these sorts of meetings frequently across our eight county district."

Prairie or trees


Deer hunters vs waterfowl hunters? The "little folks" vs government? Natural prairie vs evolved prairie? Preservation of a celebrated naturalist's arboretum? Whatever the motivation, many locals are less than happy with government agencies removing stands of trees.

One wonders how Ernest Strubbe would respond to this difference of opinions. Would he be supportive of the USFWS efforts to restore grasslands to bring back the birds he loved to paint and photograph? Or would he support the members of the Alberta Wildlife Federation, a group he helped organize and supported throughout his life. The issue is as complex as was Ernie Strubbe.

"But under the big sky of Stevens County prairie country, Ernest Strubbe labors and dreams of more wetlands, more birdlife, more public understanding and appreciation for the fact that birds are necessary; that we must respect and honor the natural world; live with and not subdue; abide by and not desecrate."

John McKane

"Ernest Strubbe's Birds"

Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, March-April 1971

What To Read Next
Get Local