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Winter walkers see dramatic changes at WPA

A day before frigid temperatures were predicted to move in, a small group of outdoor enthusiasts joined federal and local staff for their third annual Winter Walk on the Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area.

The walk, led by staff from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and Friends of St. Croix Wetland Management District, was billed as an opportunity to "discover the sights and sounds of nature" and learn a little bit about the history and management of this WPA.

The mild winter weather enabled folks to leave their snowshoes in the car and proceed on foot for the mile and half tour. Warren Irle, who grew up exploring this property and whose 40 acres of mature hardwoods borders the WPA, accompanied the tour.

For anyone who took this walk three winters ago, the changes to the landscape are dramatic. The initial prairie, where the walk began, had been strategically burned this past fall and awaits seeding with grasses scheduled for this spring.

Gone were the tangled underbrush and the buckthorn that had made this landscape almost impenetrable years earlier. The brush was replaced by open rolling hills covered in a variety of grasses and dotted with the occasional cluster of mature red and white oaks.

USFWS staff member Caitlin Smith explained that the substantial upward-seeking limbs of the oaks indicated a healthy tree able to spread out due to a lack of competition from other trees.

Oak Ridge Lake is managed by USFWS as a Waterfowl Production Area. Seasonally, it is a major stopover site during migration for a variety of waterfowl, water birds and songbirds.

Bird species using the site include trumpeter swan, tundra swan, mallard, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, short-eared owl, northern harrier, bald eagle, willow flycatcher, yellow-headed blackbird, sedge wren, marsh wren and the threatened Le Conte's sparrow.

A narrative unfolded as the group came across the tracks of a grey fox and then the distinctive tracks of pheasants and martins.

Friend's member Mike Reiter identified a grouping of five twig and leaf nests situated high in the tops of the trees as a Blue Heron rookery.

Before hiking out onto the lake, USFWS staff member Chris Trosen explained the important role marsh and wetland play in attracting waterfowl to the area.

"The management plan calls for the construction of low-lying ridges in the area to act as dams to help trap and back up water into the surrounding marsh, slowing down the draining process and increasing habitat for waterfowl," said Trosen.

As the group prepared to follow the open water creek feeding out into the lake, Irle shared the history of Oak Ridge.

"When the USFW Service came out here to buy land in this unique prairie pothole area, the first place that they went to was the Oak Ridge Lake area," he said. "They purchased a portion of the lake property from a farmer by the name of Carl Bethke who owned most of that land in 1976. That initial purchase lead to additional purchases over the years, which now total around 8000 acres.

"Oak Ridge Lake was the very first parcel bought. Because of the spring, there's always water in it. It's the biggest shallow water lake in the area."

Irle said a person can now walk all the way from Hwy. 64 outside of New Richmond to about a mile and half north of this site, six miles, and never leave federal land.

The goal of the management planed shared between the USFWS and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is to continue securing relevant land as it becomes available and to restore that land in the surrounding uplands to prairie, oak savanna and other native habitat types to provide a more fully functioning ecological landscape.

As the group followed the creek toward the lake, tracks, slides and scat indicated otters were still enjoying the open water of the creek. Out on the lake, Trosen pointed out an abandoned bald eagle nest.

USFWS Manager Tom Kerr added that Canada geese had used the nest periodically since being abandoned by the eagles.

Trosen pointed across the lake to a distant pair of white pines where another eagle nest is being used by a pair of bald eagles.

Pointing to a ridge of oak trees, Irle shared Native American history. He said the last Indian battle in St. Croix County took place between Sioux and Chippewa war parties long the wooded ridge guarding the west shore of the lake. Both groups valued the land for the abundant wildlife as well as the wild rice surrounding the lake. Several Sioux warriors died on the ridge during the conflict won by the Chippewa.

By noon the walk was nearing the end, having covered a loop from north to south traversing through prairie to oak savanna into marsh and wetland and back again up into hardwood forest.

Cookies and hot chocolate provided by Irle's wife, Missy, awaited hikers at the unique "cordwood" cabin.

Irle said it took him seven years to build the cabin, four of which were spent collecting, cutting and drying the yellow aspen, which eventually became the cabin walls. The logs were cut into eight-inch lengths and then assembled puzzle-like with mortar made of cement and wet sawdust. Large windows provide light while colored wine bottles incorporated into the peak on the east wall form the constellation Ursa Major.

The cabin has no electricity or plumbing. It's heated by a wood stove and outfitted with a simple table and chairs and few family artifacts.

In 2009 the Irles put their 40 acres into a conservation easement set up through the Star Prairie Land Preservation Trust.

"The conservation easement is an opportunity to save lands, yet let them be used," said Irle. "We still pay the full tax on this property; it isn't any type of real estate tax break. You give away any development rights."

He added, "We cannot subdivide this. We cannot put any roads into it. It has to be kept in a forested state, natural, no hunting clubs, no cell towers, etc. If we give it away or will it or sell it, the recipient must accept it under those conditions.

"Someday, someone will get it and walk it just like I do. As I boy I had my fort over there on the edge of Oak Ridge.

"It's nothing grandiose, but it's one of the best backyards in the county."

USFWS Manager Tom Kerr concluded, "We plan to continue with what we're doing with the oak savanna restoration here at Oak Ridge. Continue Conservation Day on the WPA. The Boy Scouts have really bought into that opportunity so that will continue next year.

"Continue working our way south with the goal of restoring the landscape back to its natural habitat. The great benefit of days like today and the Conservation Day program is to get lots people out here."

The Oak Ridge WPA is located two miles east of Star Prairie off County Road H.

For more information, visit the St. Croix Wetland Management District - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website at: west/stcroix.