Date: Dec. 17, 2000

Parcel near Milaca soon will be going to the dogs


A huge chunk of private property in central Minnesota soon might fall into public hands, much to the delight of people who love the arcane sport of bird-dog trialing.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in the final stages of purchasing a 2,900-acre parcel of woods and fields in Mille Lacs County just north of Milaca. The land acquisition will be one of the largest by the DNR's wildlife division in two decades.

The agency is purchasing the property with an infusion of money it received in the last legislative session. Because the deal isn't done, the purchase price won't be made public until later.

The acquisition, though, promises to settle a long-running problem for dozens of the state's dog-trialing clubs that have been prodding the DNR to make public land available for their sport.

Field trial competitions, of which there are dozens in Minnesota every year, test the abilities of hunting dogs to find game birds. Some involve judges or handlers riding on horseback. Competitions are held for nearly every gun-dog breed, from stocky Brittanies to the long-legged German shorthairs and wirehairs to hard-charging Labradors and springers.

The effort to get a large field-trialing ground in Minnesota has been spearheaded by the Minnesota Federation of Field Trial Clubs and its associated groups interested in pointing dogs.

``We're the driving force behind it,'' said Roger Berg, a St. Cloud field trialer and breeder of red setters. ``We need the grounds for all sorts of bird-dog trials. We're doing the work, but everyone will benefit from it.''

The DNR has struggled to address the field-trial grounds issue. In the 1990s, requests to use Wildlife Management Areas for trialing grounds were turned down by DNR wildlife managers because they said the use was incompatible with WMA rules. Managers also feared losing millions in federal wildlife money because they believe regulations forbid allowing dog trialing on state lands purchased with federal money.

Attempts were made to hold field trials at state parks and Camp Ripley, the military base, but those options didn't work well either. ``I've been working on this for five years, and we've been bouncing from spot to spot,'' Berg said.

The DNR's plan is to purchase the property as a Wildlife Management Area, then turn it over to the agency's parks department and have it classified as a public recreation area. That designation would allow dog trialing, said Dave Schad, the DNR's regional wildlife manager in Brainerd.

Part of the property would be leased to the dog-trialing clubs, Schad said, but the rest of the land would be open to public hunting. He said the area would be one of three or four public recreation areas in Minnesota, including an off-road vehicle park on the Iron Range.

``I think the recreation that (dog trialers) are looking for is consistent with (the DNR's) mission,'' Schad said. ``It's close to hunting, being that they are developing dogs and breeding lines that are heavily used by hunters. It's a natural-resources related activity.''

Schad said the DNR has a purchase agreement with the land's owners and will hold a public hearing Wednesday night at Mille Lacs County Courthouse. So far, the proposed purchase has been met positively by county officials and neighbors, he said. Assuming the purchase is completed, work on the dog-trialing grounds would start next year.

Berg is thrilled that the DNR is edging closer to creating a spot for dog trialers. He envisions an area that accommodates not only trialers, but folks looking for training grounds as well.

``This will be a place for dog lovers,'' he said. ``They don't have to be a trialer or hunter. It's a chance for us to be in a comfort zone and enjoy our animals.''

Chris Niskanen's outdoors column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Send items of interest to him at Pioneer Press Sports, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55101. Fax at (651) 228-5527, or call him at (651) 228-5524. E-mail at .