Geography is destiny, and I got both my geography and my destiny defined a little more clearly yesterday at the University of Wisconsin-Arboretum’s Winter Enrichment Lecture Series. Naturalist extraordinaire Rich Henderson shared his insights about the past, present and future ecology of prairies in Wisconsin. He was speaking from 34 years of experience in natural area inventory, assessment and management.
Our land sits on the western edge of the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, which is a region in southwest Wisconsin that, because its rugged, agriculturally daunting topography, is unique for its exceptional populations of grassland birds, high number of prairie remnants, concentrations of rare plants and animals, extensive surrogate grassland, and spring-fed streams, interwoven in the farming landscape. A partnership of non-profit organizations and government agencies are working together to conserve these rare and important natural resources.
The Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area sits within the borders of the newly-formed Southwest Wisconsin Grassland & Stream Conservation Area. Its goal is to work with organizations and individuals involved in farmland and grassland protection to develop conservation strategies that can maintain both working farms and healthy grasslands, savannas, and streams.
Today less than one tenth of one percent remains of the prairie and savanna that covered Wisconsin before pioneers arrived. Though settlers put an end to the wild fires and plowed vast tracks of prairie plants under, many native plants and animals managed to hang on around the edges.
Prairie exists today in tiny pockets, preserved by combinations of accident and luck, but luck is running out for many of these irreplaceable spots. Rich said that many of the prairie remnants that he identified 30 years ago have grown over in trees and invasives and are now lost forever.
There are two of these pockets on our land, and one just over the fence. Rich Henderson and other prairie experts have walked our land with us and advised us on how best to protect our remnants, which I think of as jewel boxes. These remnants are separated by woods, and we have been working for six year to restore and expand them — ultimately into a small savanna system.
Yesterday Rich emphasized that these little pieces are part of a big picture – a patchwork of prairie that can make a difference to birds and insects hanging on for dear life.
There are more than 2,000 species of insects that need prairie to survive. The red-tailed leafhopper only feeds on a grass called prairie dropseed. The caterpillars of the regal fritillary butterfly only feed on violets, especially prairie violet and birdsfoot violet. These are two of the plant that can still be found in the Military Ridge Heritage Area.
Some insects, like the regal fritillary, need a lot of elbow room. But the red-tailed leaf hopper requires only a small space to eek out an insect living. A patch of prairie the size of a small yard can be enough, but unfortunately certain insects are trapped in these small islands of livable habitat.
Because of limited mobility many insects, Ricyh says “We will get more success for our effort if we work on restoration near existing remnants.”
That energized me. I sat up straight and felt more alive as he spoke. Doug and I have been pouring ourselves into restoring our bits of prairie and savanna, but with such small pieces (less than two prairie remnant acres total), I admit to having wondered whether this effort could possibly make a difference.
When Rich described a plan to create an area big enough for the Regal Fritillary by knitting together, preserving and expanding those tiny pockets into a larger whole, I understood how our tiny piece fits in. Our small project will help fill out the patchwork being created by the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area and Southwest Wisconsin Grassland & Stream Conservation Area, which could ultimately provide 12,000 protected acres interspersed in an area of almost 500,000 acres. That seems like a worthwhile goal.
If we can keep our little pieces going and growing, they will be an oasis of diversity in the newly-broadened efforts to restore the rich prairie heritage of Southwestern Wisconsin.