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Columbine in bloom on the prairie at Oak Ridge WPA (Photo by Tom Lindfors)
Columbine in bloom on the prairie at Oak Ridge WPA (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

WPA benefits from holistic management approach

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sports New Richmond, 54017

New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

You might not even recognize the 400-acre parcel of land a couple miles east of Star Prairie, known as the Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area, from just a few years ago.

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Due to diligent management by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in concert with help from volunteers like the Boy Scouts, what was once a nearly impenetrable ramble has been transformed into the gem of local WPAs.

This year in particular, rainforest-like weather has made the mixture of prairie, oak savanna, hardwood forest and wetland even more lush. Saturday, a small group of outdoor enthusiasts joined retired biologist, Jim Riemer, and USFW manager Chris Trosen on a mobile question-and-answer summer ecology walk to learn more about the history and management of this dynamic ecosystem in our backyard.

Riemer shared from his extensive field experience working for the USFWS and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on numerous projects involving wetlands, prairie and savanna restoration and forest ecology.

His holistic approach was ahead of its time, embracing a broader perspective when it came to managing various kinds of ecosystems to benefit the widest possible range of flora and fauna rather than focusing narrowly on one particular species or habitat.

Saturday's discussion began with an explanation of the various types of grasses, sedges and forbs that have been introduced to the prairie at Oak Ridge. Although the season here favors cold climate grasses like Kentucky Bluegrass and Smooth Brome, when mixed with warm season grasses like Big and Little Bluestem, Indiangrass and Switchgrass, the prairie can support a wider variety of birds from pheasants and grouse to grassland songbirds like meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches and Henslow's sparrows.

The varying heights and densities of the grasses are part of what attract different birds to the prairie and their seasonal nature accounts for when you see specific species.

As the landscape changed from prairie to oak savanna, clumps of wild raspberries and milkweed mixed with sumac and the vibrant flowers of columbine, golden alexander and wild geraniums. A wall of oaks and other hardwoods could be seen from a ridge to the south and below, the rim of wetlands leading to Oak Ridge Lake.

It is evident that the dollars raised through the duck stamp program have funded so much more here than just the waterfowl production area.

Riemer described how historically, prairies and grasslands were controlled naturally by fire and bison.

Trosen explained how today the USFWS employs a variety of methods to control and nurture the landscape including controlled burns, chemical treatments, mowing, and more recently, grazing. He explained each method has advantages and disadvantages and that cost can often influence which method is employed. The challenges of burning in populated areas lead to a discussion of how invaluable earning a community's support is to the success of projects like Oak Ridge. Talking with neighbors and enrolling surrounding properties into trusts and easements can greatly benefit both interests.

Today because the once vast prairies have been largely erased by farming and population growth, only small patchworks of prairie and savanna remain like those at Oak Ridge. Their survival depends on an intricate orchestration of science, partnerships and politics.

Trosen pointed out, to keep unique ecosystems like Oak Ridge viable depends on several components starting with continued funding from the duck stamp program and continuing with successful partnerships between the USFW and organizations ranging from the Friends of the St. Croix Wetlands Management District and Star Prairie Fish and Game, to the Boy Scouts.

Riemer and Trosen spent several hours answering questions and detailing the challenges inherent in maintaining a property like Oak Ridge.

The real beauty of Oak Ridge is the amazing diversity of ecosystems condensed into such a compact yet accessible refuge. There are few better places locally to see the complexity and beauty of nature on display and to appreciate the silent partnerships and behind the scenes legislation that make such opportunities possible.

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