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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Wisconsin: Forward Thinking to Restore Native Prairie

A pheasant
Ring-necked pheasant. Photo: Dave Menke.

An innovative program to restore native prairie and slow the spread of non-native plant species that may thrive in Wisconsin’s warming climate is living up to the state’s motto “Forward” – taking bold steps to sustain natural resources into the future.

According to a comprehensive state report, Wisconsin's Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation, climate change models predict a shift to increased moisture and temperature in the decades ahead. By the middle of the century, statewide annual average temperatures are likely to warm by 6-7 degrees Fahrenheit. These changing conditions favor invasive plant and tree species over native prairie.

Tom Kerr, Manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s St. Croix Wetland Management District (District), says many invasive plants have already established themselves, mainly trees that outcompete native grasses. The District manages 7,800 acres in eight counties, providing habitat for waterfowl, migratory birds, threatened and endangered native species and resident wildlife.

Removing the scattered non-native trees – mostly non-native and invasive Russian olive, Siberian elm and buckthorn, as well as trees native to North America like green ash, box elder, pine and cottonwood – also benefits wildlife habitat for grassland species. The non-native trees combine with other trees to provide cover for predators such as skunks, raccoons and fox that threaten nesting waterfowl, pheasants and numerous non-game bird species that depend on large, open grasslands to thrive. 

To combat this trend, the District has launched an effort to restore portions of western Wisconsin to native prairie and grassland by removing invasive trees.

Traditionally, the removal of timber came at a high cost to the Service. Because these trees have no conventional market value, the restoration technique involved intensive and expensive cutting of these trees followed by prescribed fire of slash piles and broadcast burns.

The District has been working with local loggers to remove trees, chip the wood and supply it to energy and co-generation plants for use as renewable energy. This allows a local energy producer to use the shredded organic matter – called biomass – to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and saves the Service the cost of cutting and burning. Before this biomass project, trees were burned on site and that energy – and the related carbon – was released into the atmosphere. Today, that energy is harnessed for a useful purpose.

During 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided $263,000 in funding to the District to expand its biomass program and make major strides in habitat restoration.

The habitat restoration and biomass projects supported by ARRA funds in 2009 and 2010 generated more than17,000 tons of biomass and supported the restoration of 815 acres to oak savanna and prairie.

The biomass removed during this restoration process amounts to about 600 semi-truck loads of wood chips or roughly 15 days of power for the St. Paul, Minnesota-based energy plant that uses the wood fuel from the St. Croix restoration project. This provides an alternative to non-renewable energy sources, as well as heat and electricity to more than 187 buildings and 300 townhomes in the downtown St. Paul area, including the Minnesota State Capitol Complex.


Climate Change Focus: Adaptation

Author: Tina Shaw, USFWS

Contact: Chuck Traxler, 612-713-5313, Charles_traxler@fws.gov

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