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The Whitewater Valley

The best naturally preserved piece of the Driftless left. 

At around 30,000 acres of public land, the Whitewater Valley is by far the largest tract of public lands in the Driftless region. It's sheer size promotes a greater level of biodiversity than is found in the surrounding area. 

Located between Wabasha & Winona counties in southeast Minnesota, the Whitewater Valley is home to the 27,000 acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, Whitewater & Carley State Parks, and some stretch of state forest land.

Limestone cliffs meander between hillsides deep in the valley, while rare oak savannas dot southern facing hills. Bluffs rising up to 500 feet form the walls of a wide valley where it opens along the Mississippi River.

Below are descriptions of the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area and the Audubon Society's Whitewater Important Bird Area. A full description of all the lands in the valley can be found on pages 12-21 of the proposal. These units include:

  • The Whitewater WMA

  • McCarthy Lake WMA

  • Whitewater State Park

  • Carley State Park

  • Kellogg-Weaver Dunes SNA

  • The City of Elba

  • The Community of Weaver

The Whitewater Important Bird Area

Size: 54,500 acres* (measured using ArcGIS)

(From Audubon Society) The Whitewater Valley’s IBA (black line to right) covers over 54,500* acres and is an ecological gem in southeastern Minnesota. The area is made up of bluffs and valleys containing numerous spring-fed creeks, streams, and rivers. This multiplicity of habitats provides for a wide diversity of bird life. Approximately 250 species use the valley for migration and breeding, including 25 species of waterfowl, 22 species of shorebirds, 31 species of warblers, and 17 species of sparrows. Over 100 species are potential breeders in the area. Sandhill Cranes (at least three pairs) and Bald Eagles (two nests) nest within the area. Up to 100 Bald Eagles use the valley as a migration stop-over site or a winter roost site. Surrounded by agricultural lands, the size and quality of the habitats within this IBA, and the birds they support, are rare in southeastern Minnesota.

The Whitewater Valley, a tributary river valley of the Mississippi River, is located in Winona County in southeastern Minnesota, approximately 25 miles east of Rochester. Minnesota Highway 74 provides the best access running north to south through the valley for ~ 20 miles. The south end of the valley where Whitewater State Park is located is 8 miles north of St. Charles, MN, on Highway 74. The north end of the valley is located at the junction of US Highway 61 and Highway 74 in the town of Weaver, MN, 20 miles north of Winona, MN.

Contained within the IBA are the South, Middle, and North Branches of the Whitewater River, Beaver and Logan Creeks, and the Dorer Pools, which are part of the Whitewater WMA (yellow). Whitewater and Carey State Parks (brown) are included within this IBA. The area contains many types of habitat, including upland and lowland deciduous forests with a mixture of white pine, jack pine, cedar, oak savanna, marsh, other wetland complexes, and bluff prairies. The diversity of bird species using this area makes it a very strategic IBA in the State of Minnesota.

The Whitewater valley has a tragic history worth remembering. In the 1850s, farmers began settling the area and inflicted an immense amount of damage on the Valley’s ecosystem. They deforested much of the bluffs above the Valley, and soon flooding, and soil erosion began to move vast amounts of sand from the bluffs down into the valley. Floods became more severe, and the village of Beaver eventually disappeared, covered with eroded sandy soil. In the 1940s, the government stepped in and bought up much of the fragile land in the Valley and implemented many conservation measures. The restoration continues to this day, and the Valley is beginning to return to a more natural state.

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Whitewater Wildlife Management Area

Size: 27,454 acres

(From Minnesota DNR) At about 27,454 acres, the Whitewater WMA is the eighth-largest WMA in the state, providing habitat for a range of species. Located within two hours of the Twin Cities and halfway between Rochester and Winona, its proximity to much of the state’s population also makes it one of the most popular units open to the public for hunting, trapping, wildlife watching, and other activities.

The Whitewater WMA extends across portions of Winona. Wabasha and Olmsted counties. It’s located in rugged coulee country, a “driftless area” missed by glaciers in the last ice age 12,000 years ago. Because of this, the erosive forces of water and wind have carved valleys with elevation differences of 500 feet in some areas.

Whitewater includes a mosaic of plant communities and habitat types, including some that are rare or unique. Mixed hardwood forests of oak, hickory, maple, basswood, and walnut cover the steep hillsides. Bluff prairies dot south-facing slopes and trout streams dissect the valley floor. Seventeen wetlands (both naturally occurring and man-made) dapple the valley.

Whitewater is home to a variety of wildlife, including nearly 40 rare species. Commonly hunted species found there include white-tailed deer, turkeys, ruffed grouse, and squirrels. Waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and aquatic furbearers benefit from the 15 water impoundments that are drawn down every few years to mimic natural drought cycles and to encourage aquatic plant regeneration that attracts invertebrates.

An extensive analysis of the Whitewater WMA, including the ecological and desired conditions, can be found in the latest WMA management plan.

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