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The view from this mound...beggars all description. An ocean of prairie surrounds the spectator whose vision is not limited to less than thirty or forty miles. This great sea of verdure is interspersed with delightfully varying undulations, like the vast waves of the ocean, and every here and there, sinking in the hollows or cresting the swells, appears spots of trees, as if planted by the hand of art for the purpose of ornamenting this naturally splendid scene.
– W. R. Smith, 1837, from the top of Belmont Mound.
A century and a half after Smith penned this description, Matt Zine and his children can gaze at similar oak savannas atop hills in several state natural areas in southern Wisconsin. If Zine gets his wish, his grandchildren will enjoy that view too.
Zine is a conservation biologist with the State Natural Areas (SNA) program and project manager for a State Wildlife Grant to control invasive herbaceous plants on 100 of the finest remnants of prairie and savanna communities on 14,000 acres in south central and southwestern Wisconsin. He and a crew of four to seven part-time help have been removing woody species and conducting prescribed burns on SNA properties for 15 years. Zine says the State Wildlife Grants fill a critical gap to sustain habitat improvements formerly managed with piecemeal funding from a mix of grants, turkey stamp and pheasant stamp money.
"A large part of these grants will be funneled to our partners, who in turn will match the grants with their own funds and volunteer time. I'm hopeful we can make great strides in protecting what's left of some decimated plant communities and the wildlife species that depend on them," Zine said.
It's a group effort. Project partners include The Nature Conservancy, Prairie Enthusiasts, Friends of Devils Lake State Park, Green County Conservation League, Natural Resources Foundation, the Paul E. Stry Foundation, West Wisconsin Land Trust, and the UW-Eau Claire Conservation Club.
Congress created the State Wildlife Grant (SWG) program in 2001. Through it, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has since distributed about $360 million to states and territories that identify where habitat needs protection and make plans to protect the "species of greatest conservation need." The funds fill a huge gap between money traditionally used to manage game and waterfowl (paid for through license fees, excise taxes on sporting goods and Wildlife Restoration funds) and funding to preserve endangered species. Endangered resources, largely protected by donations, focus on species that are already on the path to extirpation or extinction. A huge number of birds, fish, insects, mammals, herptiles, mollusks and crustaceans fall in the middle and are overlooked unless their numbers drop so low that they become endangered. The SWG program called a halt to this piecemeal approach. It allows states to conserve nongame wildlife species and their habitat before they become endangered.
Over the past five years, Wisconsin's share of the national money averaged about $1.1 million a year. For the current grant period, Wisconsin selected 29 projects. Some focus on one species in one location, while others look at as many as 85 species statewide.
Zine's project is one of the larger ones that expects to benefit 47 bird species, nine herptile species, two mammal species and at least 24 insect species on 47 state-owned SNAs and more than 25 sites managed by nongovernmental organizations. The project aims to stop the invasion of exotic plants and restore the oak savanna and prairie communities that existed 170 years ago.
Fighting an invasion by hand and fire
An essential part of savanna restoration is controlling invasive trees and shrubs such as red cedar and dogwood. In the mid-1800s, half the southern Wisconsin landscape was savanna and prairie – open plant communities with few or no trees that were maintained by wildfires or fires set by Native Americans, presumably to maintain grazing lands. Savanna trees – primarily bur, black and white oak – were specially adapted to survive the fires due to their thick bark, or the ability to resprout quickly after a hot burn. Fire-sensitive species like cedar and dogwood, on the other hand, were kept in check and forced to persist in relatively low numbers in areas protected from fire. Now, decades later, biologists, landscape ecologists and landowners practice prescribed burning to restore prairie and savanna communities. Such controlled burns are an important tool in the mix of techniques funded by the SWG projects.
Besides the woody species, other invasives have more recently found their way into remaining pockets of savanna and prairie. Garlic mustard, wild parsnip, sweet clover, purple loosestrife, crown vetch, leafy spurge, dames rocket, celandine and spotted knapweed are all found in the sites covered by Zine's project. Control techniques are orchestrated to attack the plants at the most vulnerable time in their growing cycles. Starting in April and May, crews spray, torch or pull garlic mustard. In June, they spray, pull or mow wild parsnip. Sweet clover is sprayed, pulled or mowed in June and July; purple loosestrife is pulled and herbicide applied in July and August; then garlic mustard is sprayed and torched again in November. The other species are attacked at various times before they spread or set seed.
Zine's crews depend on partners to fill in the gaps. For instance, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) uses SWG money to maintain the Spring Green Prairie. This 860-acre property known as the "Wisconsin Desert" is located just north of Spring Green in the Wisconsin River valley. It's a popular destination where visitors can see unusual species like prickly pear cactus blooming in late June, or grassland birds like dickcissels, meadowlarks, and Henslow's, grasshopper and lark sparrows.
Steve Richter, TNC's director of conservation and land management, says the grants will pay contractors to remove invasives, and cut red cedar and black locust trees that threaten the sand and bluff prairies. TNC will match these expenses with help from an expert band of volunteers who will hold work parties to cut cedars this winter.
"Spring Green Prairie is one of the first sites in Wisconsin where volunteers organized to do land management work," says Richter. "Those work parties have continued each year since 1972 and some volunteers have been with us since the beginning!
"The invasive species work will open up habitat for grassland birds, insects and reptiles. Trees are also fragmenting the sand prairie and bluff habitat, making it less attractive for many grassland species to nest. We don't want invasives like garlic mustard and hedge parsley to dominate white oak woodlands on north-facing slopes and ridgetops. Also keeping knapweed and parsnip out of the barren and prairies will maintain sandy habitat for the diversity of uncommon plants, birds and insects."
Another SWG project follows a similar approach further west on Mississippi and Lower Chippewa river bluffland prairies and savannas. Tim Babros, DNR wildlife supervisor for the La Crosse/Black River Falls area, is project manager.
"A good portion of our project relies on prescribed burning and mowing to remove brush," said Babros. "We have typically done a lot of work by hand, but this grant allowed us to rent an ASV forestry mower that knocks down and chips brush up to eight inches in diameter. We've been able to mow significantly more this year than we could in the past."
Babros' project covers almost 700 acres on 24 SNAs that will benefit 85 species including several insects found nowhere else in the state. More than 45 bird species breed, stopover or winter in the area including American bittern, black-billed cuckoo, red-headed woodpecker, eastern meadowlark, great egret, black tern, whip-poor-will, least flycatcher, brown thrasher and about a dozen species of warblers and sparrows.
The SWG grant provides matching funds to several nonprofits, like the West Wisconsin Land Trust. Rick Remington, the trust's land program director, will hire staff and interns to restore remnant bluff prairie and oak savanna, as well as plant more acres with native prairie seed.
In addition to labor, grants underwrite buying seed and herbicides, as well as mowing and preparing sites before prescribed burns, Remington said. "Removing trees such as buckthorn, red cedar and aspen lets sunlight reach the ground, and stimulates the growth of suppressed native grasses and forbs.
"The land trust also recruits volunteers from its members, from contacts with local landowners and communities, and through environmental education programs. Volunteers haul and burn brush, control herbaceous invasives and identify species found on the SNAs."
Grants also support smaller projects. Take the Holland Sand Prairie, for example, a 61-acre tract of very rare habitat just west of Holmen on the expansive Mississippi River terrace. It's the last piece of native sand prairie in the Coulee Region and was preserved last winter by a unique partnership among the Town of Holland, the Paul E. Stry Foundation, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy and the state Stewardship Fund.
"It was a last-minute rescue," as George Howe, conservation director for the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, described it. "The land was commercially zoned and located in a prime spot at a major highway interchange. The landowner was going to sell to a developer. Local support and publicity raised awareness of the property value and the landowner and developer listened. With the financial help from partners, we were able to purchase and preserve it."
Native sand prairie and natural dunes once extended 30 miles from La Crosse to Trempealeau. Armund Bartz, DNR regional ecologist stationed in La Crosse, describes the terrain as "gently rolling, punctuated by rather large dunes, barren hollows and a few clusters of trees." The dunes and hollows were sculpted by strong winds. The sand prairie extends to the edge of the Mississippi River terrace, which rises 100 feet over the floodplain below.
"Standing on this edge, you get a commanding view to the west, three miles across the Mississippi River valley to the majestic Minnesota Bluffs nearly 600 feet high," Bartz says. The property is home to 36 "species of greatest conservation need" and roughly another 150 plant species. Large, mature patches of relatively rare plants like prairie smoke, sand drop-seed, prairie drop-seed and New Jersey tea are scattered throughout the prairie.
Once the area was protected, the difficult task of restoring habitat began, funded in part by a State Wildlife Grant. The landscape would naturally have been dominated by grasses like little bluestem, junegrass, panic grasses and poverty-oat grass, and plants such as flowering spurge, western sunflower and stiff goldenrod. To clean it up, managers divided the tract into four units based on the kinds of invasive plants found and the control methods needed.
One area was dominated by invasive black locust trees that needed to be removed, another by black and bur oaks that needed to be thinned. A hay field taken over by non-native grasses like smooth brome had to be burned to induce native seeds dormant in the soil to germinate. The last segment of red and white pine planted 40 years ago was shading out native species and needed to be thinned.
"The restoration work has been truly astounding to behold," says Bartz. "The residents of the Town of Holland even voted themselves a tax increase to help pay for the property over the next 10 years!" Once it's restored, the land will be dedicated as a state natural area and given to the Town of Holland.
Bartz said State Wildlife Grants paid a contractor to remove brush with forestry mowers, apply herbicides and burn some parcels. Volunteers matched those expenses by cutting limbs and brush, burning brush piles and collecting prairie seed. Volunteers have put in more than 500 hours of hard work in Saturday work-parties on the property, according to Howe. "I've been doing conservation work for 20 years and I've never seen a project come together like this one," he said. "The property is a real gem and the way the people have stepped up to support it has been phenomenal. Scout groups, at least 24 classes from the Holmen School District, UW-La Crosse students and instructors and the Friends of the Holland Sand Prairie got involved. I think what makes it so special is this parcel is the very last of its kind, almost like a dinosaur. The people realized that and didn't want to lose it."
Matt Zine, Tim Babros, Armund Bartz and hundreds of partners and volunteers know their success depends on vigilance and continued funding to control invasive species. They are also confident their work, made possible by State Wildlife Grants, will provide a sound basis for managing vulnerable wildlife species so future generations can enjoy them just as much as we do today.
Kathryn A. Kahler is the circulation, production and promotions manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. She writes from Madison.