Minnesota Department of Natural Resources opens Moon Valley Management Area in Byron

BYRON, Minn. – The fields along the Zumbro River may not be looking great right now. Naturalists are still clearing farmland, while the Department of Natural Resources plans to plant more than 100 acres of native grasses this summer.

But the future of Moon Valley Wildlife Management looks bright: more than 1,000 acres of protected wildlife habitat are accessible just 15 minutes from the concrete jungle of downtown Rochester.

The DNR is ready to welcome hikers, hunters and explorers of all kinds to Moon Valley after years of work to secure the largest expanse of protected area in Olmsted County, as well as one of the largest natural areas in southeastern Minnesota.

“Finding something this big so close to Rochester is a rare opportunity,” said David Ruff of the Nature Conservancy, who helped buy the land and donated it to the DNR. “In some places you can look at a property and try to reach an agreement with landowners; if it doesn’t work out, you think well, maybe it will come up again in ten years. Here, in twenty years, if we don’t have it protected, it will probably be several houses.”

The name Moon Valley comes from the Moon family, who have owned the former farm for almost a century since Leonard Moon bought land there for farming in the 1930s.

The farm grew to more than 700 acres under Leonard’s son Bruce, but the family decided it was time to sell when Bruce passed away in 2020. A majority of the remaining family members decided to sell approximately 420 acres to naturalists.

“It’s a big piece of land, not many people can afford it,” said Jennifer Busch, the real estate agent who helped sell the property. “I really thought this would be a really good place for what (they) wanted to do.”

The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Trust for Public Land to purchase the property for approximately $2.7 million in late 2022. Last fall they turned it over to the DNR.

Linda Moon, Bruce’s younger sister, said the family turned down a much higher offer from someone else, in part because they felt strongly about preserving the land so their children, grandchildren and others could own it.

“This was our way of ensuring the property remained pristine,” Linda said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land will help oversee the land as part of the state’s Southeast Minnesota Protection and Conservation Program, a decade-long effort to protect wildlife in one of the state’s most ecologically diverse regions. retain.

Since then, the groups have worked to regenerate the country. About 400 acres are made up of forests, wildflowers, and bubbling springs that seep up through the ground and make their way to the Zumbro River. Another 200 hectares are cropland, most of which will be converted back to prairie over the next three years. Naturalists say more than 70 plant species will be introduced to the area during that period, with the first prescribed burning taking place in three to five years.

Moon Valley will also allow hunting for deer, turkey and pheasant, among other things. Minnesota has more than 1,700 wildlife management areas, many of which provide hunting opportunities for the majority of game.

It’s an extraordinary opportunity to preserve area habitats, Ruff said. Moon Valley doesn’t have a lot of buckthorn or other invasive weeds, but it does have a higher-than-average amount of plants normally found elsewhere – think marsh flowers on the hillside or wooded thickets near the river – due to the region’s unique geography. the edge of the Driftless Area’s cliff land.

“Restoring the native habitats, getting more of that infiltration and stabilizing things, it’s going to be very beneficial not only for the wildlife, but for the water quality of the area,” said Brandon Schad with the DNR.

The real draw in the coming years will be watching everything grow. The prairie will grow and change every few weeks as the seasons change, giving residents the opportunity to see the land being reclaimed.

“You’re just going to see a whole different shift and change in the area as it comes in,” Ruff said.