Newsroom Midwest Region

News Release
May 19, 2010

Contact:  Georgia Parham
812-334-4261 x 1203


Endangered Necedah

By Richard King and Daniel Peterson
Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

Five years ago, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday in May as Endangered Species Day.  This year, Endangered Species Day is May 21, an opportunity to raise awareness about imperiled plants, animals, and habitats, and to demonstrate ways that others can help conserve these resources.  The following is an example of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working with others to recover endangered plants, animals and habitats.
Loss of habitat -- the food, water, and shelter that an animal needs to survive – is a the most common cause for a species’ decline and a major factor in prompting listing a plant or animal as endangered or threatened.  Public lands play a vital role in providing habitat for troubled species. Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect host for supporting many threatened and endangered species, including the world’s largest population of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly.  From wolves roaming its uplands, to cactus growing in its sandy floor, the refuge is considered by some as “Endangered Necedah,” for the wildlife found within.

Wandering down from the north woods of Minnesota, wolves made their way back to Necedah
National Wildlife Refuge in January 1996, after an absence of more than 60 years. Within 3 years, a pack established; one pack quickly turned into two. Being habitat generalists, the packs wander widely over the refuge during the winter, but come denning time, their range contracts,
often to savannas in remote corners of the property.  

When the pups emerge from the den for the first time, they see a savanna in full bloom. Puccoons provide a splash of yellow, while trailing-arbutus provides pink, all set against a sea of blue violets, lupines and spiderworts. On the wild lupine, butterfly eggs can be found. Some of those eggs will hatch, feeding on that lupine, and eventually become adult Karner blue butterflies. The adult butterflies’ brief lives culminate with females laying eggs on or near wild lupine to complete the life cycle.

While Karner blue butterflies are completing the first of two annual life cycles, woolly milkweed sets a cluster of understated white flowers.  What this diminutive plant lacks in charisma, it makes up for in diversity. This rare plant is at home in the heart of Wisconsin’s Sand Counties and is an ecosystem itself.  Herbivorous insects feed on woolly milkweed.  Inside, some of those herbivores are immature forms of a select group of parasitoid insects, eating their host from the inside out. Inside some of those parasitoids are immature forms of an even more select group of hyper-parasitoids -- eating their host from the inside out.

While the battle plays out on woolly milkweeds, overhead, red-headed woodpeckers are pulling off their second clutch of the year. Declining everywhere else, the Midwest’s best populations of this fiery woodpecker are found in the Necedah Refuge year round.  Possibly more than any other, this species benefits from fire.  Fire doesn’t create acorns but it provides easy access to this prized, high energy food, loved by redheaded woodpeckers. Red-headed woodpeckers hoard acorns, caching them in every nook and cranny they can find.

Competing with redheaded woodpeckers for acorns are whooping cranes that wander into the savannas immediately following fire. After feasting on acorns, the whooping cranes head back to meadows where they are most at home. The meadows are full of blooming grass pinks at this time. This little orchid has evolved an inverted or reticulated flower specifically designed for bees, blotting their back with pollen while they feed.

As a bee leaves a grass pink to gather more nectar, it must dodge a mighty little predator, the ringed boghaunter dragonfly.  This little dragonfly is primarily an Atlantic Coastal species and its Wisconsin distribution is limited to just a handful of sedge meadows in four counties in the center of the state.

If the bee, with orchid pollen saddled on its back, avoids a dragonfly encounter, it will most likely cross the nesting territory of several nervous sedge wren pairs.  The wrens lurk behind heathery mounds of wild cranberries, ready to ambush unsuspecting insects. Weaving in and out of wren territories, the bee crosses the meadow and reaches a patch of meadow beauty.  Like the ringed boghaunter, this plant is an Atlantic Coastal species, living in isolation in the Sand Counties. Meadow beauty’s vibrant pink petals and glowing yellow anthers attract many pollinators but only one, the bee, will do. Its pollen is locked in sack-like anthers, released only with high frequency vibrations of a buzzing bee; a process called sonication.

As Meadow beauty’s pollen is freed by high frequency vibrations, a smell of diesel exhaust permeates Necedah meadows. For as dependent as meadow flowers are on specific pollinators, the entire system is dependent on help from the Necedah staff. This help comes in the form of plugging 12 miles of drainage ditches that criss-cross and degrade the meadows. The ditches were dug with steam-powered dredges early in the 20th Century. Aldo Leopold referred to this effort as the “drainage dream.” Now, skilled operators use excavators, dozers, and tracked dump trucks to erase that dream.

Meadow restoration efforts continue until another plant, cross milkwort, is fruiting. An empty black tern nest fl oats on the meadow, the adults and young of the year assembled in great flocks already heading south. A Blanding’s turtle will spend the winter hibernating below that nest, but for the time-being it is enjoying the last few days of warmth in a nearby savanna, delicately sampling the flesh of brittle prickly pear cactus. This little cactus evolved with large grazers, its spines a constant reminder to elk and bison.  Necedah’s savannas still long for these charismatic vertebrates. In their absence, maintenance staff mimic grazing with bat-wing and fecon mowers. But all anticipate a day when cactus spines realize their fullest potential.

Around cacti already shutting down for the winter, sand coreopsis hardens its seed. That seed, meant to release slowly to disburse across a snowy landscape, may not have that chance.  Grabbed up by refuge volunteers, this seed will be spread to the refuge’s newest restored savanna.  As the seed is being collected, timber on the savanna is being removed for pulp and bio-fuel. And on a warm day next spring, the savanna’s seedbed will be prepped by a prescribed burn team, whose legacy reaches back many decades to a time when Leopold himself walked the property and marveled at every “cog in the wheel.”

So as the bee buzzes around the refuge finding nectar and dispersing pollen, we at Necedah try to manage for the species that were once found throughout the Wisconsin Sand Counties. As humans we are responsible for the health of our planet and all that live here, especially the species with the dwindling numbers. And as Leopold’s predecessor John Muir, former Sand County resident, once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Note: With the exception of puccoon, trailing arbutus, lupine, grass pinks, and “the bee,” all species listed in this article are federally and/or state listed or species of management concern.

For information on endangered species work in the Midwest, visit