There’s No Place like the Driftless Area
What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of the “Midwest”? Do you imagine cornfields, small towns, or Great Lakes? These images are often the poster children of the Midwest, yet despite this reputation, the Midwest is also home to one of the most unique and ecologically diverse landscapes in America, which also happens to be severely imperiled.
The Paleozoic Plateau, or Driftless Area, expands across the corn belt of the upper Midwest throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. The area is named after its distinct history and ecological features. About 12,000 years ago, it was by-passed by the last continental glacier which resulted in the absence or reduction in glacial till on the land, otherwise known as drift.
Available habitat in the Driftless Area has been dramatically reduced over the past two centuries due to a combination of factors including European settlement, fire suppression and agricultural expansion. Currently only 2% of the area’s native savanna and 1% of the native prairie remains intact. To make matters worse, the remaining ecosystem is often fragmented and degraded by the invasion of non-native species.
Red-headed woodpeckers have declined severely in the past half-century because of open woodland loss and changes to its food supply. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.
Recognizing that irreversible loss of habitat, and plant and animal species was a real issue, the Service, in partnership with state agencies and private landowners, has supported conservation in the Driftless Area through State Wildlife Grants (Competitive) in years 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2014. The most current grant for restoration in the Driftless Area (2014) was issued to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa state natural resource agencies. This project is an effort to implement multiple State Wildlife Action Plans. Each state is charged with the creation of a Plan in order to receive these grants from the Service which acted as the nation’s first “blueprint” for conservation of sensitive and imperiled species.
This unique landscape, still largely privately owned, has made a great home for a diversity of animal and plant species. A large proportion of these species are listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need with low or declining populations that are in need of conservation action- in the Driftless Area states. In Minnesota alone, over half of all state-listed Species of Greatest Conservation Need are located in this region of the state, including 94% of listed reptiles, 55% of listed birds and 50% of listed amphibians. At risk critters include species like the cricket frog, blue-spotted salamanders, painted turtles, the American bullfrog and red-headed woodpecker.
Mary Trewartha is one of the many landowners who believes in conserving the native habitat of this area. Trewartha owns a farm in Iowa County which is located in Wisconsin’s driftless region. Trewartha’s work is in part supported through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Landowner Incentive Program since its inception in 2007, which is primarily funded through federal State Wildlife Grants. Trewartha’s restoration work began well before participating in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' program. Trewartha has worked with the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program since 2000 to support prairie and savanna restoration on her farm. This relationship served as the catalyst for her exploration into additional funding opportunities including Wisconsin’s Landowner Incentive Program.
Much of Trewartha’s project focuses on restoration through removal of brush and invasive species, and controlled burns. According to Trewartha, “a photo of the farm from 1937 shows that the habitat was originally oak savanna, and with the support of these grants, I’m removing woody species and opening up the landscape to what it was.” Landowners are the life-force to the on-the-ground conservation work of the Driftless Area. Declining oak savannas and the lack of suitable habitat has made for a bundle of state Species of Greatest Conservation Need, many of which are unique to this area of the world. It is estimated that at least 80% of listed species throughout the Driftless Area live on private lands, and in Wisconsin 97% live on private lands. Without involvement of landowners, the obstacles to successful conservation management are huge. Landowners make this conservation possible.
Trewartha originally purchased the farm in 1972 and became interested in conserving and restoring the land, “We’re birders and we found we had bobolinks and meadowlarks on the farm, at a time when they were becoming rare in other areas. We decided we would manage our farm for birds.” Mary’s property now provides habitat for many grassland birds including field sparrows, Henslow’s sparrow, red-headed woodpecker and dozens of bobolinks “because I've opened up areas with oaks, I have more red-headed woodpeckers. We think there were 4 pair last summer and often saw some immatures,” Trewartha said noting that the impact of grassland and savanna restoration has been positive.
Perhaps the most interesting angle of Trewartha’s work is the why of it all, “it’s doing something good for the environment. Even on a small scale, I can have a positive impact on prairies and grassland species. My son and his family moved back from New York and will be taking over the farm eventually. They are going to carry on the conservation work.” Trewartha’s progress on the land and her land ethic will be handed down through generations, meaning those grassland birds can count on having habitat into the future.
It’s clear why the characteristics of the Driftless Area make it a high priority for conservation and provide meaningful opportunity for partnerships. The partnerships between private landowners and government agencies is what makes the light burn a little brighter for imperiled species in the region, like the red-headed woodpecker. Trewartha noted that “Without the grants from the Landowner Incentive Program and the Service, this restoration work wouldn't have been possible.”
This multi-state restoration project and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Landowner Incentive Program in the Driftless Area are supported by competitive State Wildlife Grants administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. State Wildlife Grants provide funds to states to benefit wildlife and habitats, including species that are not hunted or fished. Learn more about the Service and the Driftless AreaNational Wildlife Refuge.
By Joanna Gilkeson