One Acorn at a Time
By Ann Blankenship
Visitor Services Manager
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge
Restored floodplain forest. (Courtesy photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
We battle to restore native habitats on refuge lands across the Midwest. While it is a daunting task, consistent dedication brings success. In mid-February, staff from the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge continued their fight near Prairie du Chien, Wis., removing willow and cottonwood, which are known to compete for sunlight and nutrients.
Mowing down dense stands of willow and cottonwood during the winter helped 150 planted swamp oak trees reestablish native habitats. This stand was planted in 2002 about four miles north of Prairie du Chien, Wis. to help reestablish a floodplain forest in an old farm field.
As anyone familiar with the refuge will tell you, there is a more to the river than water. Floodplain forests provide habitat for a variety of wildlife. In particular, the tens of thousands of songbirds that migrate through the refuge each year rely on healthy, diverse forests as they travel to and from their breeding and wintering grounds.
The floodplain forest has been changing over time. The forest once had a variety of tree species of different ages. Now it is dominated by a few species and most stands are growing old, with little regeneration. Older trees are not being replaced because invasive species, such as reed canary grass, form a solid mat of vegetation. This growth makes it nearly impossible for young tree seedlings to become established. A less diverse forest means lower wildlife diversity.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge staff cut willow and cottonwood surrounding planted swamp oak trees. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
Refuge managers are trying to change this, little by little. For the last 10 years volunteers and refuge staff have been collecting oak acorns from the floodplain forest and sending them to a nursery where they are planted and nurtured into five to six foot tall young trees. These trees come from stock that can tolerate extended periods of flooding and their height gives them a competitive edge over reed canary grass. Cutting the willow and cottonwoods surrounding them increases their chance of thriving in the river bottomlands.
With hard work, vigilance, and a little luck, the floodplain forest will once again host a diversity of tree species that produce food and nesting for wood ducks, squirrels, deer, eagles, herons, and turkeys. As one staff person said, “It's satisfying to look at the work you've accomplished over the last 10 years and see that you've made a difference in the forest today and hopefully in the future.”
If you would like to volunteer to collect acorns or plant trees for forest restoration, please contact the District office at 563-873-3423 for more information.
The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is the most visited refuge in the United States. The refuge extends 261 miles along the Upper Mississippi River from Wabasha, Minnesota to Rock Island, Illinois, protecting and preserving habitat for migratory birds, fish, and a variety of other wildlife. This 240,000 acre refuge was established in 1924.