In 2013, in Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy, near Osceola, Wisconsin, heavy snowmelt overran an earthen dike between two wetland pools. The dike was built by a previous owner, decades earlier, using PVC pipe to move water between the pools. The pipes had failed, causing a shallow sheet flow to cover the usually dry crossing. Gushing and overflowing water eroded a trench through the dike, which eliminated the sheet flow, which caused the water level of the upper pool to drop to a concerning low. The trench made the eastern half of the property unreachable by the Standing Cedars Land Conservancy’s land management vehicles.
Standing Cedars had only recently been bequeathed this 84-acre property. The volunteers who run the nonprofit organization were concerned at the deepening of the trench and the dropping water levels might alter the area hydrology and cause the resident pair of trumpeter swans to relocate and head for deeper waters. Plus, Standing Cedars could no longer drive to the bur oak woods to address a growing buckthorn problem, or the former quarry that had been colonized by a small population of native gravel prairie plants.
“We wanted to open the oak woods to a savanna, and cut invasive red cedar trees and broadcast a diverse array of gravel prairie plant seeds onto the old quarry. Having to walk to the site with gear while navigating the growing trench and proceeding along the trail we could no longer mow was setting back our land management goals,” stated Ryan Rodgers, Vice President of the Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy. “For an organization with a small annual budget, no employees and 1,500 acres of land to manage, replacing the failed structure was beyond our capabilities.”
And that’s where a medley of conservation organizations stepped in. Led by Caitlin Smith, Private Lands Biologist for the Saint Croix Wetland Management District of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she orchestrated a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association. The partnership designed and hired a contractor to build a new water control structure in November of 2016. Instead of using PVC pipe, the new structure features a slightly depressed stone spillway that is shallow enough to drive a tractor over. Since the structure’s completion, the water level of the upper pool has regained its former level, making it more likely the swans will return, as well as reestablishing seasonal wetland habitat for ducks, shorebirds and turtles.
Standing Cedars is home to hundreds of acres of grassland, including remnant and planted prairie. Near the St. Croix River lays a 1,100 acre parcel called Engelwood containing populations of wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), which is the only host plant of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly caterpillar. Standing Cedars is particularly excited that Saint Croix Wetland Management District is working with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on a recovery project for the Karner blue butterfly. Though the project is experimental, and success is far from guaranteed, this spring, a number of Karner blue larvae will be taken from a site with a healthy population and transferred to Standing Cedars’ largest lupine patch.
Done in conjunction with this project, federal funds made available to restore the monarch butterfly population, after its unprecedented collapse in recent years, allowed for the hiring of a contractor to mow brush encroaching onto the lupine patch. Left unchecked, the brush would have soon shaded out nectar-producing forbs, the food source for monarchs, Karner blues and a multitude of other pollinators. These mostly treeless grasslands are also key habitat for a number of grassland birds.
Standing Cedars is optimistic that through strategically placed habitat projects, pollinators and other prairie dependent species will be able to live on indefinitely into the Anthropocene age with help from the Standing Cedars habitat restoration project. Standing Cedars is proud to occupy a six-mile habitat corridor, and commend the U.S. government’s prudence in making a small investment in fighting to maintain a bellwether species.
A bit of these funds provided a grant to Standing Cedars for using our own equipment and volunteers to mow two adjacent dry prairies of sumac and prickly ash. The Service provided Standing Cedars Land Conservancy with a number of native forb seeds of species valuable to pollinators, which we broadcast over the mowed areas and burned to improve pollinator and overall prairie habitat.
This story has been reprinted with permission by Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy.