27 April 2008

Habitat Conservation Project a Tribute to Pioneers of Conservation

Ongoing habitat conservation in the prairie pothole region of southwest Wisconsin continues as a lasting tribute to pioneer conservationists of the region.

Historic farmsteads of John Muir and Aldo Leopold lay within the boundaries of a project that incorporates "Leopold's land ethic and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ecosystem approach bringing resource agencies, organizations and private landowners together to contribute to the protection of migratory birds and Wisconsin's prairie wetland ecosystems," according to the summary for a federal grant.

This project recently received a $1 million grant from the North American Wetland Conservation Act, sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Madison Audubon Society will administer the grant. Partners that will provide an additional $3 million in matching funds include Madison Audubon Society, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Dane County Parks, Natural Heritage Land Trust, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Waukesha County Land Conservancy, private landowners, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association.

"Benefits produced from the project," said Marsha Cannon, the grants administrator with the Madison Audubon Society, "will increase recruitment of ground nesting migratory birds, provide nesting habitat for wetland-associated bird species, provide foraging and migratory resting habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbird species, and protect rare and endangered plant and animal species."

The Devils Lake State Park restoration involved 35 acres of wetland and 54 acres of upland restoration. Ditches were filled, water re-channeled to create a natural meander, and numerous (9) scrapes completed. Wetland species were seeded in wetland areas; upland seeding completed on surrounding upland areas."

"Upland enhancement grant funds and DU Wetland restoration grant funds from the Phase III SCWIPPI NAWCA grant were used to partially fund this project. Partners on this project include Devils Lake State Park (the landowner), along with Pheasants Forever, Friends of Devils Lake State Park, USDA-NRCS, and Sauk County Land Conservation Department. Partners provided additional funding and/or in-kind services." Images courtesy of Trish Vanderhoef.

A variety of habitat types are being acquired, restored or protected, according to the NAWCA grant summary. There will be 616 acres acquired, 43 acres donated for use as wildlife habitat, easements purchased on 130 acres, easements donated on 80 acres, and more than 1,400 acres of bird habitat restored or enhanced. The emphasis is on restoring palustrine emergent wetlands, decreasing wetland types, riparian wetlands, and adjacent uplands.

Benefits for wetland and grassland birds "include breeding habitat for waterfowl species such as Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, Wood Ducks and Canada Goose; migratory stop-over habitat for several species of shorebirds, waterfowl, and waterbirds such as Wilson's Phalarope, Greater Yellowlegs, Northern Pintail and Lesser Scaup; foraging and nesting habitat for wetland birds including American Bittern, Black Tern, and Marsh Wren; and nesting habitat for grassland bird species of concern such as Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel and Eastern Meadowlark."

This prairie wetland initiative project area lies within the Upper Mississippi River/Great Lakes Region Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, according to the NAWCA grant summary.

"Habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement completed under this proposal will help meet habitat and population goals identified" in the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan and the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan, the grant said. The project also "incorporates wetland and grassland landscapes identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) as critical habitat for grassland birds, which includes Partners in Flight Watch List Species and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 3 species of management concern."

"The project will also develop critical habitat for the state-threatened Blanding's turtle; establish refugia for state and federally listed plant species such as prairie bush clover and prairie white-fringed orchid, improve surface and ground water quality; reduce flooding; develop economically important recreation areas; and enhance aesthetics," according to the NAWCA summary.

"Madison Audubon Society has been a partner with the Southcentral Wisconsin Prairie Pothole Initiative since it began in September 2000," Cannon said.

Devils Lake channels, October 2007.

Phase I - from September 2000 to September 2003 - was administered by the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo. The Madison Audubon Society agreed to be the grant recipient and administer Phases II, III - from September 2003 to November 2008 - and Phase IV where an agreement is in process.

The anticipated timeframe for Phase IV, Cannon said, is May 2008 - May 2010. Each phase is expected to take at least 2 years, with an additional 1-year "no cost" extension available.

"The first three phases of the project protected, restored and enhanced 13,445 acres," Cannon said in explaining the success that has resulted in a continuation of the conservation initiative. "The project goal for Phase IV is to protect and restore an additional 1,158 acres of wetlands and 1,550 acres of associated uplands, thus bringing the total habitat protected to 16,153 acres.

"Phase IV of the project will provide additional protection, restoration, and enhancement of wetland and associated grassland habitat within the project area. The project will continue to decrease erosion, increase water storage during rainfall and snowmelt events, improve water quality in lakes, streams, and rivers by removing sediment, contaminants, and pollutants, and provide important habitat for wildlife. These functions have been greatly reduced due to the detriment of wetland and grassland habitat productivity within the project area over the last century. Partners have been working hard for a number of years to protect and restore these habitats and recover these functions.

"Federal funds are crucial in acquiring and restoring habitat because no one funding source can cover the entire cost," Cannon said. "Project partners match the federal NAWCA funds with non-federal funds, and thus greatly increase their ability to provide and protect bird habitat. Because NAWCA funding is available over a multi-year timeframe, partners can plan their acquisition and restoration activities with confidence."

"A large number and diverse group of organizations have come together as partners in this proposal," according to the project summary. Cannon also indicated the value of having a diverse group of project partners.

"Many partners are non-government conservation organizations and are partners of the Phase I, Phase II and Phase III NAWCA grants. Waukesha County Land Conservancy has joined the current proposal as a significant new partner. Private landowner, Wildland L.L.C. is greatly welcomed as an important new partner. Private landowner Fair Meadows returns as a partner from the Phase III grant. Partners have collaborated on many conservation projects in the past and are committed to protecting and restoring wetland and grassland habitat within the proposal area. The large number of dollars partners have committed for new match for this proposal demonstrates this commitment.

Devils Lake ponds.

"Diversity brings strength and flexibility to the Southcentral Wisconsin Prairie Pothole Initiative," Cannon said. "Partners benefit from a combined project since, individually, it would be difficult to prepare a proposal and attract the level of grant funding provided by NAWCA. Centralizing grant administration with the grant recipient, Madison Audubon, reduces administrative costs to all partners. While each partner proposes specific projects and match, there is internal flexibility because it is the partnership as a whole that is accountable for meeting project goals. For example, if unforeseen circumstances prevent one partner from meeting land acquisition or habitat restoration goals, another partner can use the funding so the federal dollars are not lost.

"Development and urban sprawl are significant threats to wetland and grassland habitat, and development also threatens restoration potential on agricultural land within the project area. Four rapidly growing metropolitan areas lie within the project area. Madison and Sun Prairie in Dane County, Janesville in Rock County and the Milwaukee metro area in Waukesha County contribute to development pressure, which spills over into neighboring counties. Unfortunately, development is permanent, and lands that are developed are unlikely to provide habitat for wildlife ever again. Partners feel that opportunities lost to purchase and restore wetlands and grasslands due to a lack of funds are opportunities that are unlikely to present themselves again in the future."

The public will benefit from this project as critical habitat is acquired and conserved in a developing area. By accomplishing projected goals, the grant summary says, the public will realize the many benefits that healthy wetland ecosystems provide. They will also gain additional locales for watching birds, and an "overall better quality of living."

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