Dane County Conservation League assisting Wisconsin DNR
Plainfield, Wis. — As the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has reduced its efforts at working with non-game wildlife, the state is fortunate that conservation groups have taken a broader view of natural resources, including non-game.
The Dane County Conservation League (DCCL) has long been interested in preserving native habitat. In the late 1950s under the leadership of the late Paul J. Olson the league formed the Prairie Chicken Foundation and began buying land in central Wisconsin.
Olson learned from famed Wisconsin Conservation Department researchers, the late Fred and Fran Hamerstrom, that preservation of scattered patches of grasslands around the town of Plainfield in Waushara County was a key to keeping native prairie chickens dancing on the Wisconsin landscape.
That same land is also shared by non-game species.
Today DCCL owns 4,300 of the 14,000 acres known as the Central Wisconsin Grasslands. These parcels are part of the Buena Vista, Paul J. Olson, Leola, and Mead state wildlife areas located around Plainfield, Wisconsin Rapids in Wood County and Stevens Point in Portage County.
To ensure that the land is kept in grassland habitat, DCCL enrolled the land in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Grassland Reserve Program. GRP is a voluntary conservation easement program where the land is protected from development while being managed to enhance plant and animal biodiversity and grasslands.
The land is now managed by the DNR as grasslands, providing benefits to prairie chickens, bob-o-links, meadowlarks, Henslow’s sparrows, short-eared owls, and northern harriers, as well as ducks, deer and even trout.
DCCL members traveled to Plainfield to see management efforts first-hand in early August.
Long-time DCCL member Ed Brost, Jr., of Madison, has seen the land and its wildlife change drastically since he lived in the area. The 85-year-old Brost was born in Verona, but the family moved to the family farm near Babcock where he grew up.
“I got my first shotgun from my grandpa at age 12 and for food we went out and shot prairie chickens. We also sold them for 35 cents per bird, which were shipped to Milwaukee,” he said.
Brost explained that fires followed on the landscape after the big harvest of pine trees from northern and central Wisconsin. The land had consisted of open marsh with tamarack, black spruce and alder.
Most of the land was later ditched and drained for agricultural purposes, but natural vegetation grew back to young aspen, brush and mixture of grasslands suitable for ruffed grouse.
With short growing seasons and frost pockets, some areas remained in grasses. Bluegrass thrived and was used to feed horses, but also provided ideal habitat for prairie chickens.
At one point, Wisconsin had prairie chickens in all 72 counties.
“We did a lot of walking when hunting chickens. My dad would carry binoculars and when the covey flushed he would watch where they went down,” Brost said. “Then we’d walk that direction and turn and walk into the wind to get close enough to shoot when they re-flushed.”
Prairie chickens have dark meat but are good to eat.
Brost also had the opportunity while living in the Babcock area to meet some impressive people, including Fred and Fran Hamerstrom, who lived in an old house built during the Civil War period. During one visit to the house, he saw the person Brost calls his hero – Aldo Leopold, returning from a hunt, stopped to visit the Hamerstroms, who were his former graduate students.
Land succession and increasing agricultural pressures took a toll on prairie chicken numbers, resulting in the season being closed in 1954. They were then managed as a non-game bird.
Brost said that in more recent years the introduction of the central pivot irrigation system allowed for numerous vegetables to be raised while also pumping out groundwater that led to more pressure on habitat.
“I lived during the best of times for any outdoorsman in Wisconsin’s history,” he said.
Still, the numerous frost pockets, muck soils, high water tables and short growing season make the area ideal for bluegrass. The land is home to Wisconsin’s largest concentration of greater prairie chickens, though numbers remain relatively constant.
Erin Grossman, DNR wildlife biologist at Berlin, has coordinated much of the land management for the complex with activities such as brush control, controlled burns, use of herbicides, and grazing.
One of the unique methods used is allowing Bill Kolodziej, a rancher, to put cattle in paddocks and move them around every couple of days. The cattle help reduce brush and invasive species, leaving “fertilizer” for the land and insects that benefit brood-rearing of prairie species.
The cattle mimic what took place a hundred years ago with bison roaming the prairie grasslands.
“It takes two people to have a successful partnership, and we’ve had that with Grossman’s efforts,” Kolodziej said.
Greg Dahl, DCCL president and long-time manager of prairie chicken land around Plainfield, said that his main goal “is for the land to remain in grassland for the prairie chickens and numerous other grassland species.”
Dahl said that the DNR manages the land for DCCL with financial help from DCCL. His hope is that the DNR will be able to continue its management activities into the future.
Increasing pressures from agriculture and development are always a concern for anyone who manages natural lands.
DCCL, founded in 1933, is the second oldest conservation group in Wisconsin. It has been a leader in conservation, purchasing land that became the first public hunting ground in the state at Deansville Marsh just northeast of Sun Prairie.
The group provides educational scholarships in conservation, streambank improvement work, construction of wood duck, wren and bluebird houses, pheasant stocking, and restoration of prairie chickens.
Members on the field tour were Brost, Dahl, John Center, Tom Ripp, Dwaine Rundle, Tom Klingbiel and Kevyn Quamme. Hosts and tour leaders were Erin Grossman, Becky Brathal, Sharon Schwab and Marc Kenyon.