Story and Photos by Chris Grondahl - biologist with Game and Fish Department Natural Resources Division
North Dakota Outdoors February 1995
A dream became reality during the summer of 1994 at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department headquarters office in Bismarck. After months of coordination between state government agencies and private companies, 55 acres west of the office will become a premier outdoor classroom for young people.
The property is being developed into an Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site, or "OWLS." The Department adopted the concept from a similar program in Kansas.
The purpose of the program is to provide an outdoor learning laboratory close to schools where instructors can teach environmental subjects in a hands-on manner. Such learning opportunities may foster a better understanding and appreciation of wildlife and the environment.
While a fishing pond in the OWLS is full and already stocked with trout, it will likely be next fall before the entire project takes shape. What won't be readily apparent among the new grass, trees and pond is the coordination and contributions that made the OWLS.
Development of the Game and Fish Department OWLS began after the North Dakota State Penitentiary gave management authority of 55 acres of land to Game and Fish. The land, which has been idle creek bottom and grassland for many years, lies between the penitentiary and Game and Fish headquarters on the eastern edge of Bismarck.
Photo: An aerial view of the Game and Fish Department OWLS after completion of the pond excavation. Future plans for the site include a timber bridge to provide access across Hay Creek, tree plantings, interpretive nature trail and demonstration of other wildlife enhancement techniques.
With land to develop, Department staff looked at what the OWLS could feature and how to pay for it. A modest $10,000 was the amount the Department had authority to spend. With visions of a fishing pond, which could cost $50,000 by itself, there was a real challenge to locate outside funding sources.
One of the first contacts we made was with Niles Hushka of Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson, a private engineering company. Hushka volunteered to engineer the fishing pond. His crew spent hours designing and redesigning what eventually evolved into a pond in the shape of a fish. Niles also was instrumental in coordinating many other activities with private companies, acting as a liaison between them and Game and Fish.
The Department also researched the possibility of using men and equipment from the North Dakota Arrny National Guard to dig the pond. There was plenty of work to do, but it had to be determined whether our plan fit into what the Guard could do and whether it would provide realistic training. General Keith Bjerke confirmed Guard resources could support our operation, however, clearance would be needed from the Association of General Contractors. The AGC and its members saw the project as a worthwhile endeavor and supported it.
In July, after fence removal and a thorough cleanup by State Industrial School students, the Army National Guard's 142nd Engineers began removing topsoil. A scraper, assisted by a bulldozer, dug layer after layer into soft and water-saturated earth. The equipment was getting stuck and plans to excavate the entire pond to a depth of 8-12 feet with only bulldozers had to be revisited.
Photo: Kent Orvik and Terry Fasteen from Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson shoot points and stake the outline of the fishing pond.
The problem was solved after Northern Improvement Company agreed to help out by donating a backhoe operator's time to finish the pond. However, Northern Improvement's equipment assets were tied up in other construction so the actual piece of equipment would have to come from another source. Enter Butler Machinery of Bismarck, which provided a backhoe lo help complete the pond. Things were beginning to look up for the OWLS .
Four other private companies donated materials for construction purposes. Northern Pipe Products brought in 300 feet of six-inch pipe to provide water control between two wetlands. Northern Water Supply provided the valves that would connect these pipes, while North Dakota Concrete Products donated the structures that would house the valve assemblies. Dakota Ready Mix provided the final touches with concrete to stabilize the pipe network underground.
With all equipment and materials on hand, the team of state and private agencies began construction of the fish pond and an adjacent wetland. As Joe Silbernagel of Northern Improvement cast huge scoops of earth from the seat or Butler's backhoe, bulldozer operators from Co A, 164th Engineers and 957th Engineer Co. pushed the dirt away. This work lasted for the better part of a week until the fishing pond and nearby wetland were complete.
Photo: In the foreground, personnel from Co A, 164th Engineers and 957th Engineering Company place a portion of the water control structure between wetlands. In the background, Joe Silbernagel of Northern Improvement Company casts earth with a backhoe donated by Butler Machinery.
Final dirt work included digging several 20-25 feet deep holes within the pond. This procedure would ensure rupture of the underground aquifer which would provide the pond's water supply.
With assistance trom the city of Bismarck, the pond filled with water, and it was time for Earthworks, Inc. to respread topsoil and make final contour improvements. With winter closing in there was little time left for reseeding. Bruce Renhowe's team of Game and Fish technicians prepared the soil for native grass planthig at the same time Earthworks, Inc., was finishing their contribution.
A 10-species native grass seed mix was donated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and just in time. Rain fell the following week, then snow, which set the seed and protected it from winter winds.
An OWLS construction sign displaying burrowing owls drawn by artist Linda Crawford marks the spot that will bustle with activity this spring. Trout were stocked in September to determine if fish can survive the winter in the pond. As of mid-January, the fish were doing well, and more fish will be stocked this spring.
Trees will be planted on a portion of the OWLS while the Centennial Trees Commission will further enhance the area with 8,000 trees to complete the state's Family Forest. The goal of the Family Forest is to plant 10,000 trees, one for every child born in the year of 1994. Pheasants Forever has committed to providing funding or manpower for planting these trees.
To provide access, Ducks Unlimited, Inc. has engineered a bridge to get people from the office parking lot, across Hay Creek, and onto the OWLS project. The National Guard 141st Engineers unit will build the bridge.
Progress on this project is on schedule, thanks to all of the partners. Donations to the Game and Fish Department for engineering, manpower, equipment and materials approaches $55,000.
This project's success exemplifies how different groups with varying purposes and missions can work together to create a worthwhile project for teaching our young people and enhancing the environment for all.
Build your own OWL site