Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Sevanna trees © Bill Hogseth

Savanna trees are sentinels of The Bottoms.
© Bill Hogseth

December 2014

Bringing back "The Bottoms"

Dunnville State Wildlife Area is making a comeback.

Paul Frater

There is a bank on the south side of the Chippewa River where you can look out and see miles of grassland. As you scan the vast expanse of newly re–created prairie and oak savanna, it becomes easier to imagine what most of western Wisconsin once looked like. The grasslands extend for miles and the giant bur oaks reach their branches down and out like great big arms hoisting up hundreds of tiny leaves. This area once looked entirely like this, and at least at this particular place, it is quickly turning back into the beautiful oak openings and grasslands that occupied these river bottoms 150 years ago.

This is the Dunnville State Wildlife Area, located in western Wisconsin along the mighty Chippewa River. It lies 15 miles south of Menomonie and 25 miles southwest of Eau Claire and comprises over 4,000 acres of diverse habitat. Most of the area is floodplain to the Chippewa River, and as you slink down any of the several roads that lead into the wildlife area, you feel as if you are stepping back in time to a place where the river rules.

The locals call it Dunnville Bottoms for good reason. Entering "The Bottoms" for the first time feels kind of like going into the basement when you were a kid. It is dark, damp and mysterious. But once you get used to it, there is an enormous treasure trove waiting to be discovered.

Various community types exist here, from floodplain forest to backwater sloughs, oak woodlands and mixed hardwoods. But the most dynamic and fastest growing community types being managed are the oak savannas and prairies.

Wisconsin's grasslands

Grasslands are globally imperiled ecosystems and home to many rare and endangered organisms. Before loggers, miners and settlers became established in Wisconsin in the 19th century, this area consisted mostly of grasslands and oak savanna. Prior to European settlement in Wisconsin, there were over 2 million acres of prairie and roughly 5.5 million acres of oak savanna amounting to 20 percent of the land area of the state. Today, less than 1 percent of that original prairie exists, and less than 1/100th of 1 percent (0.01 percent) of the original oak savanna of this state exists.

The goal throughout a large portion of the Dunnville State Wildlife Area is to convert overgrown forests and shrubby fields back into native grasslands, which will provide habitat for many rare species.

Dunnville’s history

Eastern meadowlarks. © Herbert Lange
Eastern meadowlarks nest here.
© Herbert Lange

Dunnville Bottoms was not always an expansive area dedicated to wildlife and endangered resources, though. The wildlife area was initiated in 1967 and has been managed and expanded by the Department of Natural Resources ever since. Prior to becoming a wildlife area, most of the tractable lands were farmed.

In 1951, requests from the Dunn County Fish and Game Association led the Wisconsin Conservation Department to lease the area for hunting. Shortly after, the Conservation Department began buying land in the area and eventually created the Dunnville State Wildlife Area.

In 2009, the Dunn County Fish and Game Association started an endowment fund with the Natural Resources Foundation, and the Lower Chippewa River Alliance has since added to it. The fund is invested and each year a small disbursement is made for projects to benefit conservation. This fund can be used anywhere within the Lower Chippewa River Basin and focuses on State Natural Areas. The fund has been able to provide restoration efforts and land acquisition, and thanks to local conservation groups, this area will have funding to protect it for a long time.

The surrounding area also holds an interesting history. The nearby town of Dunnville was once a booming village. In the latter half of the 19th century the Knapp, Stout and Company, a large and influential logging corporation of the day, operated one of its sawmills along the Red Cedar River here. Dunnville was even the county seat of Dunn County for the first five years of its existence. But once Knapp, Stout and Company closed its sawmill, the town quietly faded into the misty bottoms. Today, not much more exists than a few houses and an old church.

A landscape–scale perspective

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of the Dunnville Bottoms, though, is its current management strategy and goals for future management. Much of the area has been converted back into grassland through prairie plantings of the old agricultural fields, but the future of this property holds great potential for wildlife and endangered resources through its dynamic landscape –scale management design.

Typically, grassland managers create and maintain prairie and savanna areas by taking a planted field or oak woodlot, usually 20 to 200 acres, and burn and mow it to impede brushy growth and invasive species. However, Dunnville State Wildlife Area property managers Jess Carstens and Chad Mogen, swapped this traditional line of thinking for an alternative restoration mode.

They brought in loggers and whole–tree chippers to clear out areas of standing trees between parcels of grassland. In this way, they turned many scattered grassland plots into a few large expanses, creating a matrix of prairie and oak savanna. This landscape–scale restoration has several advantages, from increased efficiency for prescribed burning, to a continuity of spatial attributes for wildlife like grassland birds.

There is still much work to do, fueled by a persistent DNR effort to hand –cut trees in certain areas, dispose of brush left behind by loggers and constantly monitor cut –over areas for tree re–sprouting and growth. Additionally, much time has been invested in prescribed burning to keep these grassland areas open and diverse. Cumulatively, these tasks have accounted for thousands of hours of work and made a great impact.

Unfortunately, this success has also made it easier for people to illegally get off–road with a vehicle. Visitors coming to Dunnville Bottoms to enjoy and appreciate the hard work that has been done here, are reminded to obey all signs and rules for the protection of the wildlife area. This includes staying on maintained county roads and parking within designated parking lots.

What "The Bottoms" has to offer

Dunnville Bottoms has a lot to offer the everyday traveler. It is best known locally for hunting, but has all kinds of little–known appeal for other outdoor enthusiasts.

Hunters will find deer, turkey, duck, pheasant, rabbit, squirrel, dove and some limited ruffed grouse hunting opportunities. Quail have also been seen here, but are rare.

Great birding opportunities also exist. Over 1,000 acres of prairie and savanna are home to grassland songbirds including Henslow's sparrows, clay–colored and grasshopper sparrows and meadowlarks. Red–headed woodpeckers have been found nesting in one of the savannas and a Swainson's hawk was spotted there. There is a host of warblers that stopover in the floodplain forests during spring migration, as well as a myriad of waterfowl along the Red Cedar and Chippewa rivers and numerous backwater sloughs.

While birding last spring, nine duck species and two grebe species (including the state endangered red–necked grebe) were spotted. Additionally, biologists Bill Hogseth and Jeanette Kelly started a bird monitoring research project in this area in 2010. Volunteers have helped with these surveys and recorded seeing the state threatened Bell's vireo, bobolinks, dicksissels, lark sparrows and black–billed cuckoos.

Dunnville State Wildlife Area also offers an opportunity to just get outside and enjoy nature. The Red Cedar State Trail is a great rails–to–trails path extending from Menomonie all the way through Dunnville where it continues across the Chippewa River to junction with the Chippewa River State Trail that runs from Durand to Eau Claire. This is an excellent trail for hiking and biking, and portions of it are groomed for cross–country skiing. There are also hunting paths throughout the wildlife area that are walkable throughout most of the year. These paths can offer some exceptional and rare wildlife and plant sightings.

The Chippewa River provides swimming opportunities and sandbars that are open to camping. A tranquil canoe or kayak ride down the Chippewa River is a great way to access these sites. Lastly, several State Natural Areas (SNAs) exist within the Dunnville State Wildlife Area. Many are remnant or restored high–quality prairie sites with rare plant and animal species.

In fact, the Lower Chippewa River Valley, which runs from Eau Claire to the Mississippi River and encompasses Dunnville Bottoms, contains over 2,000 acres of remnant or original prairie amounting to roughly 25 percent of all remnant prairie in the state!

Dunnville State Wildlife Area and the associated SNAs contain rare prairie and savanna species such as leadplant, wild–indigo, various milkweeds, fame flower and numerous prairie grasses.

It’s worth the visit and the effort to bring back "The Bottoms."

Paul Frater is a research scientist with the Department of Natural Resources and teaches biology at the University of Wisconsin–Stout.