ONE TINY PIECE IN A PATCHWORK PRAIRIE

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.

...Farmland conserved last year by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy

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.

...Expanding a prairie remnant we call The Glade last winter with the help of the Prairie Enthusiasts.

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.

...The Glade, now expanded. This was a wide spot in a truck trail when we identified hoary puccoon growing there and started to work pushing back brush and trees.

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.

..Just last summer, this blazing star appeared in the Glade.

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.

...Wisconsin DNR boundary map of Southwest Wisconsin Grassland Area

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9 replies

  1. That is so wonderful that you can do this restoration work with your bit of land. Kudos. I’m aware of how many factors must come together to make this kind of work happen: knowledge, resources, desire, empathy for the non human world. We need 100,000 small land holders and land watchers like yourselves. Standing ovation from the peanut gallery.

    Christopher

    • Thank you so very much, Christopher. Yes, I feel grateful for that combination of factors that have come together to put me and this bit of land together.
      It’s a heavy responsibility and a constant joy.

      • Christopher, I’m realizing that your original comment is not in here, and I’ve been looking to find it without success. All I can say is that I’m a long way from a computer expert, and I apologize for somehow losing your comment into blog outer space.
        this whole internet thing seems so crazy sometimes.
        I sure will try not to do that again — whatever it was.
        Denise

    • Thanks, Pat. I like your blog very much too. I started blogging less than a year ago and really love this way of connecting. I will be checking in on your work too.
      This is being my winter to appreciate lichen. I’ve always liked it peripherally, but now it is front and center as I walk through the woods.
      And what a joy it is.
      cheers,

    • Thanks, Dennis.
      Yeah, that is disheartening, but not totally surprising to see the U.S. back pedal on this issue. We all have to make so many changes in our daily lives to lower our impact.
      Sometimes, I admit to feeling discouraged that it can happen.
      It seems like there are waring philosophies —
      one says that we can’t afford to compromise on such crucial issues
      the other says that every little bit helps
      What do you think?
      Denise

      • While we have changed some light bulbs and I’m doing extensive gardening and our carbon footprint is lower than average, I’m not making great efforts to minimize it. Not when China is opening a new coal-fired power plant every week and our Congress is a bunch of deadheads.

        If the ppm goes above 550, I think we will see some very powerful feedbacks that will prevent the climate from stabilizing, even at a new and less congenial state. There are significant natural feedbacks that will come into play, even if at 500 ppm human society majorly reduces its emissions. There will be major floods of environmental refugees leading to wars. And some societies will collapse.

        Admittedly I’m fairly pessimistic. Surely hope I’m wrong, but we WILL be seeing major changes in the landscape and society. I wonder if our social institutions will be able to adapt?

      • I know, Dennis. I know.
        It takes a certain amount of schizophrenia to work on environmental issues while so many destructive and global forces are playing out their frightening progress. It does seem like we are on a runaway train. Some people try to set up baracades, but they can never quite agree how to do it, so the baracades they manage to erect are a joke (but not a funny one) and the train barrels right on through.
        I can’t let myself spend too much time on images like this.
        I’m just one tiny spark of consciousness, and I want to make the most of that, and for me that means connecting with and defending what I understand to be the natural world.
        And by the way, gardening is huge. I hope yours gives you joy as well as the best food money can’t buy.

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