The ponds and wetlands of western Wisconsin are melting. Almost as soon as they are ice-free, the birds fly in by the many thousands, driven by their urgent need to reproduce. Mallards, wood ducks, blue-winged teal, hooded mergansers, trumpeter swans, and Canada geese come to breed and raise the next generation of their species.
In a graceful stroke of evolution, when the first birds show up in early spring, only the tiniest ponds are free of ice – and these ponds are just what the waterfowl need. Biologists call the glorified puddles “invertebrate soup” because they are full of hearty bugs to eat. These bugs provide the calcium that female birds need to make their eggs.
After they’ve eaten their fill, the waterfowl will pair up and fly off together to nest on the large marshes and shallow lakes nearby, protected from predators on big water, where the young can learn to fly. These waters are open by the time they’ve gotten the nutrition they need and found a mate.
This relationship between water and birds and weather and land is why Tom Kerr and his staff don’t necessarily go for big, splashy projects. Kerr, the manager of the St. Croix Wetland Management District (SCWMD) near Somerset and New Richmond, Wisconsin, can preserve a few acres here and a few acres there and have a big impact on bird populations.
Kerr has led the wildlife refuge since 2007, and was this year recognized with the highest award a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) manager can receive. The Paul Kroegel Refuge Manager of the Year award goes to “those who demonstrate leadership and bold vision.” Besides overseeing thousands of acres of marshes, grasslands, and oak savanna, Kerr was noted for his ability to engage refuge neighbors in the effort.
“We can’t buy our way to conservation,” Kerr says. “Conservation is something that people embrace, and in our area we’re very lucky, there’s a lot of people with interest in conservation, whether it’s birds or the St. Croix River or prairies or wetlands, or areas to hunt or recreate.”
It is only by working with all those people that Kerr believes the USFWS can do the most good. And besides, he says, it’s the public’s land. The people ought to have a say in its management, and they ought to enjoy it as much as possible.
Heaps of habitat
“We have about a six-mile corridor of lands here,” says Chris Trosen, SCWMD wildlife biologist. “We need large areas for habitat, and we need to be fiscally responsible, to get the most bang for our buck.”
Trosen was driving around the district in early March. Together with his colleague Caitlin Smith, a private lands biologist, they pointed out lands in various stages of restoration and use. Pulling down one farm track, they stopped next to a muddy, frozen patch of barren ground that had been logged last fall in preparation for the return of oak savanna. Across the road was a thriving example of the finished habitat, representing a few acres of the 1,000 left in Wisconsin, which is just one-tenth of one percent of its original extent in the state.
Altogether, the district manages more than 40 waterfowl production areas (WPAs). They are primarily funded by purchases of the Federal Duck Stamp, of which 98 percent of the purchase price goes toward preservation of bird habitat.
The pride and joy of the district is probably Oak Ridge WPA. There is a new viewing platform there, built by volunteers from the Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District, soon to offer a spotting scope. With it, visitors will be able to see across a 150-acre prairie pothole lake, surrounded by 3,000 acres of marshes and upland habitat.
According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, it is one of only a few such lakes with permanent protections in the state, “Bird species using the site include trumpeter swan, tundra swan, mallard, greenwinged teal, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, shorteared owl, northern harrier, bald eagle, willow ycatcher, yellow-headed blackbird, sedge wren, marsh wren and the state threatened Le Conte’s sparrow.”
It is a big flat expanse, where humans can simply stand on the edge and watch the wild.
Doing good downstream
“There is a common misperception that water quality work needs to be done right next to rivers,” says biologist Trosen. “But it needs to happen on uplands, where we can do more good at less cost.”
Relatively distant from the St. Croix River, the work the wetland management district is doing for bird habitat has profound positive impacts on clean water in a time when pollution pressures are higher than ever. Two of the three tributaries that are the biggest source of harmful phosphorus to the the St. Croix, the Apple and Willow Rivers, flow out of the refuge.
“A lot of the time we think about the bird conversation side, but the restoration of these grasslands and wetlands in the Willow River and Apple River watersheds is going to directly benefit those tributaries,” Kerr says.
The wetlands, prairie, and oak savanna the district preserves all act as sponges, soaking up rainfall, slowing runoff, and filtering out sediment and pollutants like phosphorus before it reaches surface and ground water. In the spring, at the same time these lands are providing habitat for breeding birds, they are also capturing snowmelt, easing flooding.
Those small wetlands that are so good for early season birds, and are a priority for the SCWMD, have a particularly outsized benefits for water. Such areas have a high ratio of perimeter, where much of the cleaning and filtering of water occurs. Unfortunately, small wetlands have also been destroyed at a higher rate than larger areas.
This means the district’s ambitious plan to restore about 1,300 acres of wetlands by 2023 has enormous potential to improve the health of nearby lakes and rivers.
“We would solve a lot of our water quality problems if we could just keep the rain where it falls,” says Monica Zachay, water resources steward for the St. Croix River Association.
Zachay and others interested in St. Croix River water quality work with Kerr and his staff because they all have an interest in restoring perennial plants to the landscape. The chief mission of the USFWS is wildlife habitat in the form of wetlands, prairies, and oak savanna.
Some of the best type of lands for clean water are… wetlands, prairies, and oak savanna.
Finding those areas of overlapping goals and working together on them seems to be one of Kerr’s hallmarks. The best example of it is perhaps the Grassland Action Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and other groups that share one common objective: more grass on the landscape.
“We started noticing there was a lot of overlap between what our friends group was doing, some of the things we were doing, the Prairie Enthusiasts, and also Audubon,” Kerr says. “Why not get them together and look at the classic Venn Diagram, and find the overlap in the middle, and is there a way we can work efficiently?”
Kerr calls the effort a great example of “cross-pollination,” which is appropriate because one of the primary objectives is creating more habitat for butterflies like monarchs and the endangered Karner Blue, and other imperiled insects that pollinate plants.
The district has also launched a program partnering with local farmers to graze cattle on its lands. The cows mimic the brush suppression role that bison historically performed, keeping habitat like oak savanna healthy, as well as making some beef and some money for the farmers.
Like wetlands, grasslands play an essential role in slowing and filtering runoff. Anything that leaves vegetation on the land year-round helps hold soil and water, and prairie in particular with its long root systems and fissured soil can soak up a lot of water before it rushes into nearby streams.
“The direct benefit to the St. Croix for water quality is huge,” Kerr says.
The district also works with landowners in the area who want to improve their property for birds, wildlife, and water. Across the road from Oak Ridge WPA, private lands biologist Caitlin Smith points out a little wetland near a home. On the other side of the driveway, the land is choked with brush, just like what’s now the wetland was before restoration.
“We removed the brush and the wetland popped back,” Smith says. It was full of its original native plants. “We don’t come in and tell people what to do, but we ask them what they want to see out there and help achieve those goals if possible.”
The public also plays a key role in research performed on the district. The St. Croix Valley Bird Club was just given the district’s annual volunteer award. The group was instrumental in performing population surveys and banding birds – in other words, bird-watching for a good cause.
New Richmond is a farming community situated at what was once the eastern edge of the tallgrass prairie that covered the Great Plains. Since at least the last Ice Age it had rich soil, deep-rooted plants, and it took a long time for rain to reach the rivers.
It’s poised on the edge of change, now. With the opening of the new bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater at the end of next year, more houses, roads, parking lots, and lawns could come (some people call lawns “green concrete” because of how quickly water runs off them). The overall effect could be more water moving faster.
This means the natural water holding and filtration systems of the wetland management district’s lands will be even more important in ensuring the area sends clean runoff downstream.
The New Richmond community is working with the Fish & Wildlife Service to ensure that happens as it should.
One day last May, 55 students and faculty from New Richmond High School came to the district’s headquarters and planted 3,200 native prairie seedlings. District staff will harvest seeds from those plants for years to come and use them to plant future habitat restoration projects.
The agriculture class is growing them again this year, which is not as simple as it sounds. The plant species need to experience the region’s typical freeze-thaw spring cycle to thrive. One afternoon this month, biologist Chris Trosen was headed over to the school to help the class put the seeds in wet sand and then stick them in a refrigerator. They would be taken out and put back in every 12 hours, before also being put in the soil at the district, providing more native seeds.
And the prairie will grow and burn, birds and butterflies will come and go, and the water will make its way slowly to the streams.