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In cooperation with the landowners at Badger, the Alliance Volunteer Program serves to provide opportunities for our volunteers, partner organizations, and the general public to connect with the land and engage in stewardship of our natural and cultural resources.
At present, our volunteer program emphasizes ecological restoration of prairie, savanna, and woodland sites within the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Our goals are that the restoration program be:
Strategically applied to sites based on ecological, educational, and collaborative considerations
Consistent with the values of the Badger Reuse Plan
Sauk Prairie Restoration Sites
In establishing ecological restoration priorities, a conservation organization must think carefully about its investment of time and other resources. The Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance has organized volunteer ecological work days in all of the following sites: Fordham Prairie, Hillside Prairie, Highway 12 Nursery, Kindschi Prairie, and Northeast Savanna.
Fordham Prairie is dedicated to the late David Fordham, who worked at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant for more than 30 years, including as the Commander’s Representative for the US Army. In that role, Mr. Fordham led a number of conservation initiatives on the Badger lands. The Fordham Prairie restoration is a one-quarter acre parcel planted in 2004. The Alliance volunteer crew, with assistance from International Crane Foundation staff, completed a prescribed burn of the restoration in spring 2007. The site extends along US Highway 12 to the north of the main gate entrance, and is marked by a memorial sign.
Hillside Prairie has been the priority for our volunteer ecological restoration program since 2006, although volunteer work at the site began in the late 1990s. The site is important ecologically, as it is the highest quality remnant of the Sauk Prairie within the Badger landscape.
While it has suffered from neglect – particularly absence of regular fire – the present dedication of volunteers has made a significant and positive impact on improving the prairie by reducing invasive shrubs and other undesirable species. Growing populations of violet wood sorrel, bird’s-foot violet, fringed puccoon, pussy toes, and a variety of native sedges, asters, and prairie grasses are the evidence of our volunteer restoration efforts. The Hillside Prairie will likely remain a priority for our volunteer program, as it is of a size and quality that makes small-scale volunteer management feasible.
Since 2006, the site has been burned 6 times, and the reintroduction of regular fire has had a remarkable impact on native species, while setting back cover of shrubs and weedy biennials (sweet clover, Queen Anne’s lace, garlic mustard). There are still challenges in maintaining the site’s integrity; building the capacity of our volunteer program to increase the volunteer hours at the site will help.
The Alliance launched a citizen science invasive species monitoring program at the Hillside Prairie in 2012, and we will issue a summary report with data analyses to assess our progress in 2016.
Kindschi Prairie was named in honor of Donald “Doc” Kindschi, who led the restoration of the site with the Sauk County Natural Beauty Council in the 1980s. The restoration is approximately 16 acres, and nearly all the native prairie seed planted at the site was collected from local remnants. Those early planting plans took into account local soils, topography, seed availability, and aesthetics. Doc Kindschi spent countless hours weeding and managing the site. The Alliance has hosted a number of volunteer workdays at the site over the years, and dedicated volunteers have contributed hours of their time to its stewardship. The Alliance volunteer burn crew, with assistance from International Crane Foundation staff, was able to complete a prescribed burn of the restoration in 2007.
Volunteer restoration workdays in the Northeast Savanna were organized before the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance incorporated as a nonprofit. Volunteer workdays have only been sporadically held at the site since 2005, and ecological restoration work was stopped when access restrictions changed due to demolition of property infrastructure. Prescribed burns were led by Alliance volunteers and International Crane Foundation staff on the site in 2006, 2008 and 2009, but no burns have occurred on the Northeast Savanna since that time. The primary management challenge for the site is control of invasive shrubs, although other invasive species – including garlic mustard, reed canary grass, and Japanese hedge parsley – are also of concern.
What is Ecological Restoration?
The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) defines ecological restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” In Wisconsin, ecological remnants are scattered throughout the landscape. Though they vary in size and quality, these sites provide important clues as to the historic ecological complexity and biological diversity before European settlement.
Ecological remnants are particularly important for conservation, because they are reservoirs of regionally adapted biological diversity. In southern Wisconsin, fire suppression and large-scale conversion of land for agriculture and infrastructure development has had profound impacts on the landscape. Ecological restoration presents an opportunity to conserve and restore a patchwork of the native grasslands, oak savannas, woodlands, and wetlands that are in significant decline across the Upper Midwest.
The process of ecological restoration is best guided by a long-term vision coupled with annual management plans to move the restoration site closer to recovery. A long-term vision should have measurable goals, with progress assessed through qualitative or quantitative monitoring. Ecological restoration requires patience and commitment, but is also an extremely rewarding and fascinating process. The most important traits of the restoration volunteer are curiosity and a willingness to adapt to changing conditions.
What are Invasive and Encroaching Species?
Invasive species are non-native species that exhibit a rapid and widespread establishment within an ecosystem, which negatively affects ecological processes and are typically associated with declines in native biological diversity due to natural resource competition. Invasive and encroaching species are exceptionally competitive species due to prolific reproduction, generalist habitat requirements, and/or rapid growth. This is particularly true in landscapes experiencing shifts in conditions, such as temperature, moisture, community-level diversity, and disturbance.
Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is an invasive plant of particular notoriety in Wisconsin. The species originates from Europe and Asia and was introduced by European settlers as a root crop. However, the species is an aggressive, monocarpic perennial whose seeds can remain viable in the soil for years.
While it is often assumed that native species maintain ecological stability, native species also have potential to cause harm by outcompeting other natives and reducing community diversity due to shifts in land use and/or climate. These prolific natives are defined as encroaching species.
For example, Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) may become an encroaching species in disturbed remnants or relatively low-diversity grassland restorations. While native to Wisconsin, it may require periodic mowing and other management until a diverse stand of other native species becomes established, and it is no longer assessed to be a concern.
Ecological restoration volunteers regularly make assessments about how we direct our time and energy – resources are limited, and we must be able to make scientifically-informed decisions. Our goal is to conserve and restore biological diversity and ecosystem services – not to clear a site of all exotic species. Thus, being able to determine whether a species is, or is likely to become, ecologically invasive by its Natural History is critically important.
Invasive and Encroaching Species
Understanding a species’ natural history is a first step in assessing its likelihood of becoming ecologically invasive. Natural history information includes:
Life cycle – How long? Dependent on presence of other species?
Species interactions – What are its herbivores/predators? Or, what are its prey?
Reproduction – How many seeds/offspring? How often?
These traits aid ecologists in making predictions about species distribution and likelihood of invasion or encroachment in a given ecological context. Our most problematic invasive species tend to be exotic simply because population controls, such as herbivores, disease, and resource competitors may be absent in the new system. Further, exotic species may have traits that give them a competitive advantage.
For example, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is considered allelopathic, meaning its roots release chemicals which inhibit the growth of other plant species. However, disturbance, fire suppression, and garlic mustard’s rapid growth and prolific seed production are likely more important factors in its ecological invasiveness in Wisconsin’s woodlands and oak savannas.
Natural history information also provides a framework for categorizing plants according to their growth form, life cycle, or distinctive ecological traits. For example, we might group plant species into any of the following categories (these are examples, not an exhaustive list):
Deciduous shrubs – woody, perennial species less than 10’ tall with winter dormancy
Biennial forbs – non-woody, non-grass species with a 2-year life cycle (seed production in the second year)
Perennial forbs – non-woody, non-grass species with a > 2-year life cycle
Categories such as these are useful because they provide us with clues about the best time of year to control invasive plants, and what control methods are most likely to work well. For example, if we know that autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is a deciduous shrub, we also know that it will go into winter dormancy – and fall may be an optimal time to cut and treat the shrub with herbicide, because this is when the plant will be pulling nutrients (and the applied herbicide) down to its roots.
In contrast, our best strategy for controlling a population of biennial plants like sweet clover (Melilotus spp.) is to ensure that it is managed before it produces seed in the second year. Life cycle of a biennial plant. We can see that seed production will not occur until year 2. Thus, it is critical to manage the population by year two before seed is produced and added to the soil seed bank.
Role of Phenology in Prairie Restoration
Phenology is the study of cyclical or periodic change of natural phenomena, such as plant reproduction. Cyclical changes, including growth and development patterns, for all of the species present in our management areas are documented to determine optimal periods of the year for active management of undesirable plant populations. It is important to note that desirable species might be vulnerable to disturbance and vegetation control efficacy will vary throughout the year. For example, volunteers may wish to avoid foliar herbicide spray of garlic mustard once native spring ephemerals, like Dutchman’s breeches, have emerged.