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Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds
A Guide for Wisconsin

Management Priorities for Birds, Habitats, Landscapes, and Sites


I distinctly remember the large eggs of the "Prairie Snipe" [upland sandpiper] and the still larger ones of the "Crooked-bill" or "Big-Snipe" [long-billed curlew]... These snipes were so numerous... that a bird student might have been misled to the conclusion that they were nesting in colonies.

—Halvor L. Skavlem, Recollections of
Bird-Life in Pioneer Days (referring to
an area in Rock County in the 1850's)
(Skavlem 1912)

Small Map: Wisconsin Natural Divisions

Statewide

Birds
The statewide list of management concern species (see Table 3) translates into different priority sub-lists for each natural division in the state, based on the division's potential for management. That potential reflects differences among natural divisions in habitat distribution and in soil types and other factors—such as hydrology and land-use patterns—that affect grassland habitats. It also reflects differences in bird distributions. For example, while some species, such as bobolink and eastern meadowlark, are nearly statewide in distribution, others are found primarily or most abundantly in one natural division:

  • Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland—sharp-tailed, Le Conte's, and clay-colored sparrows; sharp-tailed grouse; yellow rail; Brewer's blackbird; and northern harrier

  • Central Plains—greater prairie-chicken and vesper sparrow

  • Southwestern Upland—grasshopper, lark and field sparrow, western meadowlark, loggerhead shrike, and Bell's vireo

  • Southeastern Ridges and Lowlands—blue-winged teal and barn owl

  • Lake Michigan Shoreland—upland sandpiper

Complete lists and discussion of species of management concern for each natural division are included in the natural divisions section of this guidebook.

Habitats, Landscapes, and Sites
In Table 4, we rank habitat types in terms of their importance to grassland birds, amount and distribution, and degree of stability in Wisconsin. To implement grassland bird management, however, we also need to identify both large-scale landscapes and specific sites that incorporate these priority habitats.

We have identified 26 management priority landscapes, along with their current and potential size, dominant habitat types, and notes on their potential for development, expansion, or restoration (Appendix G). These priority landscapes vary from predominantly native to primarily surrogate grasslands. We selected these priority landscapes for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Current value for grassland bird species of management concern
  • Current large size
  • Potential for the creation of large sites or linkages of smaller sites with high-quality grassland bird habitat
  • Representation of unique grassland habitat types
  • Representation of habitat variation within the state
All 26 landscapes listed in Appendix G represent unique opportunities for landscape-scale grassland management that should not be missed. The top ten landscapes are all of the highest management priority; taken together they represent all the habitat types required by high priority grassland bird species and communities. The top ten landscapes include areas that currently have some of the highest amounts of permanent grassland habitat in the state, as well as areas with patchworks of agricultural habitats that are more suitable for grassland birds than the agricultural habitats in some of the lower ranked landscapes. The remaining 16 landscapes are also of high priority for grassland birds but in some cases represent duplication of habitats included in the top 10. These l6 landscapes are still highly important landscapes for grassland bird management, however, and have other merits warranting their presence on the priority list—such as representing habitat variation among natural divisions and importance to other related bird communities.

Photo by Dick Bautz: Rush Creek State Natural Area
Dry prairies on bluffs ("goat" prairies) are perhaps best represented at Rush Creek State Natural Area on the Mississippi River in Crawford County, shown here. These habitats receive relatively light use from grassland birds primarily because much of the habitat is restricted to steep slopes. Expansion of grassland habitat at these sites will improve their value for grassland birds.  

The priority landscapes in Figure 8 contain the best examples of highly ranked grassland habitats and capture some of the differences in bird, as well as habitat distribution statewide. They range from fairly small sites such as the Rush Creek/Battle Bluff Goat Prairies and Savannas (see G in Figure 8; 230 acres of dry prairie and old field and up to 500 acres of potential oak savanna restoration) to large areas such as the Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Valley Landscape (C; up to 200,000 acres, primarily surrogate grasslands) and the Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens (U; currently 9,700 acres composed mainly of native grassland and barrens habitats, with potential for expansion). Some sites are isolated within forests, such as Black Lake/Belden Swamp (Z), or fragmented landscapes, such as Bong Recreation Area (L), while others are embedded in large, relatively open landscapes, such as Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas and Columbia/Dane County Prairie Wetlands (K). Many of these open landscapes are or will be managed with the cooperation of private landowners and other agencies.

If all 26 priority landscapes were developed and managed, they would incorporate over 1.1 million acres of landscape-scale grassland habitat for grassland birds in the state.

Figure 8 includes the location of these priority landscapes along with eight secondary landscapes of lesser priority, key sites within landscapes that serve either as focal points for management or as locations of important, existing managed grasslands, and many other smaller but important sites for grassland bird habitat management outside of the landscapes. Enlarged maps for each natural division, including names of sites and secondary landscapes, are presented along with suggested management priorities in the following sections.

Seventeen of the 26 priority landscapes are suited for large-scale areas, which is the most important scale for grassland bird management. The Buena Vista Prairie-Chicken Management Area (in landscape P) is an important example of a currently functioning large-scale grassland area (approximately 50,000 acres) that fits our criteria and in fact serves as the model for our concept of an area consisting of a combination of public and private land (Hamerstrom et al. 1957). The Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex (T) also qualifies as a current large-scale management area because it already includes well over 20,000 acres of publicly owned grassland habitat, mostly at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area.

In addition to these two areas, three others—Moquah Barrens (W), Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens (U), and Fort McCoy Barrens (B)—are approaching the size required for large-scale areas and currently exceed the required 2,000 acre core of permanent grassland. Grassland and barrens habitat at Moquah Barrens is planned to exceed 11,000 acres, the Namekagon/Douglas County Landscape currently has around 9,700 acres of open, diverse, and brush prairie barrens, and Fort McCoy Barrens has around 8,800 acres of sand prairie and barrens habitats, although not all of it is open enough for high grassland bird use. In addition to these five landscapes, we will probably need at least five new large-scale grassland landscapes, bringing the total number to at least ten in the state.

Most of the five current large-scale areas consist primarily of large public ownerships, and thus differ from our model of large-scale management areas. Opportunities for future large-scale acquisitions such as the five discussed here are very limited; this is one reason why our recommendations for large-scale areas do not rely entirely on land acquisition but rather incorporate significant amounts of private land.

Figure 8: Map of Wisconsin showing locations of priority and secondary landscapes along with sites for management focus within each of the natural divisions
Figure 8.  Location of priority landscapes and sites for grassland bird management in Wisconsin.


Map
Location
a
Statewide
Rank
b
Priority Landscape (ranked within natural division)

  Southwestern Upland
A 1     Thomson Prairie Grasslands
B 9     Fort McCoy Barrens
C 8     Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas
D 10     Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens
E 6     Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands
F 17     Lower Chippewa River Savannas and Prairies
G 26     Rush Creek/Battle Bluff Goat Prairies and Savannas
 
  Southeastern Ridges and Lowlands
H 3     Muralt/Monroe Grasslands
I 5     White River Marsh Complex c
J 18     Southern Kettle Moraine Complex
K 16     Columbia/Dane County Prairie Wetlands
L 15     Bong Recreation Area
M 19     Rush Lake Grasslands and Sedge Meadows
N 22     Brillion/Killsnake Grasslands
O 23     Pine Island Area Grasslands
 
  Central Plains
P 4     Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands
Q 14     Necedah Barrens
R 21     Bear Bluff Wetlands
 
  Lake Michigan Shoreland
S 24     Green Bay West Shore Sedge Meadows
 
  Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland
T 2     Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex
U 7     Namekagon/Douglas County Barrens
V (1,2) 12     North Central Prairie Chicken Grasslands
W 11     Moquah Barrens
X 20     Mead/Paul J. Olson Grasslands
Y 13     Spread Eagle Barrens
Z 25     Black Lake/Belden Swamp

a Alphabetical order reflects ranking within natural division. For example, in the Southwestern Upland, A is highest-ranking and G is lowest.
b See Appendix G. Note that landscapes are not ranked in the same order statewide as they are within each natural division. This is due to differences in the scale of the two rankings. For example, because Ft. McCoy Barrens is unique in the Southwestern Upland as the largest and best barrens landscape in that division, it ranks high in the division but is out- ranked by some surrogate grassland landscapes in the statewide ranking.
c The White River Marsh Complex includes sites in both the Southeastern and Central natural divisions, and therefore is included in the maps for both of those divisions (Figures 10 and 11).

Of the five large-scale grassland areas mentioned above, only Fort McCoy is south of the tension zone (see sidebar), where we currently lack large landscapes of publicly owned and managed grasslands. This area of the state is particularly important for several reasons (Sample et al. 1994, Henderson and Krause 1995, Henderson and Sample 1995):

  • Historical prairie areas have the topography and climatic conditions most conducive to the maintenance of open grassland habitat with the least effort.

  • Former prairie landscapes retain a relatively treeless aspect, even today.

  • Some bird species are restricted to or most abundant in the area south of the tension zone.

  • Many former prairie areas have scattered patches of residual native sod that can serve as sources of prairie insects and soil micro-flora and -fauna.

  • Plant species richness of native prairie increases as one moves south and west from the tension zone.
At least two of the new large-scale landscapes should be developed south of the tension zone. The landscapes that hold the best promise for this purpose include Thomson Prairie Grasslands (A), Muralt/Monroe Grasslands (H), Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands (C), Star Prairie Pothole Grasslands (E), and White River Marsh Complex (I). The Glacial Habitat Restoration Area is another example of a landscape-scale grassland management project that is south of the tension zone, but it consists primarily of widely scattered tracts in a very large (838 miles²), intensive agricultural landscape without a large core area of permanent grassland. This project is currently being evaluated to determine its value for grassland birds.

Nine of the 26 priority landscapes are identified as having the potential to be managed for medium-scale areas only (Appendix G). Seven of these areas currently have more than 1,000 acres of permanent grassland and therefore probably function as medium-scale landscapes: Lower Wisconsin River Prairies and Barrens (D), Bong Recreation Area (L), Pine Island Area Grasslands (O), Necedah Barrens (Q), Green Bay West Shore Sedge Meadows (S), Spread Eagle Barrens (Y), and Black Lake/Belden Swamp (Z). The Lower Wisconsin River and Green Bay West Shore landscapes are both in need of more connectivity between grassland sites, however.

In addition, the following ten sites—a majority of which are in the Northern Highlands/Lake Superior Lowland Natural Division—are not included in the priority landscapes but already contain over 1,000 acres of permanent grassland (most in blocks > 100 acres) and thus may function as medium-scale landscapes.

Locator Map

Site Name Page Site No.

Badger Army Ammunition Plant   94   52
Glacial Habitat Restoration Area
  (represented by the Patouille/Bulwalda Easement)
  94   57
Grand River Marsh Wildlife Area   94   58
Sandhill Wildlife Area Barrens/Buffalo Pasture 102   75
Pershing Wildlife Area 116   86
Amsterdam Sloughs Wildlife Area 116   94
Bayfield County Fuelbreaks 116 100
Kakagon Slough Sedge Meadow 116 104
Powell Marsh Wildlife Area 116 105
Thunder Lake Wildlife Area 116 109

An assessment of these sites is needed to see if they meet the criteria for medium-scale areas. There are additional sites outside of the priority landscapes that have less permanent grassland than the above ten sites but that may have the potential for management as medium-scale landscapes.

In addition to the above landscapes and sites, at least seven of the 17 potential large-scale areas identified above could instead be managed as medium-scale areas; these are potential large-scale landscapes that currently lack large blocks of permanent grassland or consist of areas of permanent grassland separated by currently unsuitable grassland habitat. Included in this list are Thomson Prairie Grasslands (A), Muralt/Monroe Grasslands (H), Columbia/Dane County Prairie Wetlands (K), Southern Kettle Moraine Complex (J), Rush Lake Grasslands and Sedge Meadows (M), Brillion/Killsnake Grasslands (N), and North Central Prairie Chicken Grasslands (V1 and V2).

Overall, there are currently at least 26 landscapes and sites that may qualify or have the potential to be managed as medium-scale grassland management areas. In addition to the large-scale areas, we recommend establishing or maintaining a total of at least 25 medium-scale grassland areas in the state.

An assessment of all landscapes that currently have enough permanent grassland to qualify as either large- or medium-scale grassland management areas is needed to determine how they can be improved for grassland birds. An assessment is also needed for most of the other landscapes and sites to determine in detail the current amount and configuration of grassland habitats, as well as the potential for further grassland management and expansion. In addition, for all priority landscapes, the importance of grassland conservation needs to be weighed along with the potential importance of conserving other communities, such as forest and wetland habitat types, (for example at the Southern Kettle Moraine Complex (J).

The 26 priority landscapes and sites, as well as the eight secondary landscapes (marked with double letters in Figure 8, are not the only places where grassland management should occur. Many other sites on both public and private lands can provide valuable grassland bird habitat if managed according to the guidelines in this publication.

As with bird species, the native habitat types and landscapes they occur in and most of the surrogate grasslands have varied distributions among the natural divisions. For example, open, diverse, and brush prairie barrens, northern sedge meadow, open bog, and grass hay occur primarily in the Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland and Lake Michigan Shoreland, while dry or sand prairie and oak or river barrens occur in the Southwestern Upland and the Central Plains. Upland pasture is most highly concentrated in the Southwestern Upland.

Differences in priority birds and priority habitats among and within natural divisions should be taken into account when planning and implementing management actions. In each natural division, we should manage for the habitats and landscapes preferred by the bird communities that include the priority species of that division. The following sections address management priorities for birds, habitats, landscapes, and sites within each natural division. For each of the natural division accounts that follows, bird communities typically associated with the habitat types discussed can be located in Table 1 and Appendix E. Habitat preferences of bird species are summarized in Table 5 and Appendix F.

      All 26 priority landscapes represent unique opportunities for landscape-scale grassland management that should not be missed. The top ten landscapes are all of the highest management priority; taken together they represent all the habitat types required by high priority grassland bird species and communities.
The Buena Vista Prairie-Chicken Management Area is an important example of a current large-scale grassland area that serves as a model for our concept of an area combining public and private land.

Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Savannah sparrow
Savannah sparrow

Historical prairie areas have the topography and climatic conditions most conducive to the maintenance of open grassland habitat with the least effort.
For all priority landscapes, the importance of grassland conservation needs to be weighed along with the potential importance of conservation of other communities, such as forest and wetland habitat types.


Wisconsin's tension zone is a border between northern and southern floristic provinces (Curtis 1959), based on the zone where the highest number of plant species reach their range boundaries. Historically, most of the state's prairie acreage was south of this zone.

Map showing Wisconsin's tension zone

Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Little Bluestem
 Little Bluestem

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