The Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area
The Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area covers 16,000 acres, straddling the Wisconsin River in Sauk and Columbia counties west of Portage. It includes five large tracts managed by federal, state, and private landowners, including nonprofit organizations as well as private individuals and families. Located at the southern edge of the “sand counties,” the IBA is within a transitional zone between two ecoregions.
The IBA has a wild character with few human habitations, yet much of it is intensively managed and researched for wildlife conservation. Cooperative research, monitoring and education among various public, and private agencies and landowners have been ongoing in this IBA for decades. It includes large tracts of public land, as well as private lands available for cooperative management.
This IBA harbors most of the breeding-bird species representative of the natural floodplain and adjacent upland of this central Wisconsin landscape—including many declining species such as red-headed woodpecker, bobolink, and meadowlark, which are benefiting from management for savanna and prairie habitats. The “missing” species characteristic of more extensive wetlands, grasslands, barrens and forests stand a good chance of appearing in future years as management proceeds. (From Important Bird Areas of Wisconsin, published by the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative)
Download the entire IBA report (PDF-5MB)
The Leopold-Pine Island IBA
The Leopold-Pine Island IBA is located along the Wisconsin River in south central Wisconsin, in a mosaic of marsh, grassland, barrens, floodplain and upland hardwood forest, and agricultural land in private, state, federal, and non-governmental organization ownership. The development of the IBA into its current form began in 2004 when several partners, primarily through the Aldo Leopold Foundation, proposed expanding the boundaries of an existing IBA nomination for the Pine Island State Wildlife Area to encompass several adjacent public and private parcels containing a variety of high quality natural communities. A lack of recent bird data for these areas, necessary to evaluate them against IBA criteria, led to the development of this bird survey which inventoried breeding and migrating birds across the entire proposed IBA. These data supported the proposed boundary expansions and the area was approved as a single IBA in December 2005. The bird survey also established a project boundary and a baseline for future monitoring, and identified bird species and associated plant-animal communities for which management might be targeted based on the area’s natural characteristics, ownerships, and regional context.
The Leopold/Pine Island IBA is a great place to see birds year-round. Particularly in the spring and fall, you can see many birds stopping during their migration that would not normally be seen in these habitats.
Currently there is very little infrastructure for visitors, and since much of the land in the IBA is private, please respect the landowners by not trespassing. Roadside birding is excellent along the 11 miles of Levee Rd./Fairfield St. (Rustic Road 49). Also, the Pine Island Wildlife Area is public land and is open access, so you may go off-road at some locations. Please explore the map below for roadside birding opportunities along Levee Rd. The Aldo Leopold Foundation also offers birding classes through the Woodland School program that explore the birds of the IBA in greater depth.
History of the IBA
The Important Bird Area Program
The Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program is an international effort to identify, protect, and manage sites that contain critical habitats for birds. Initiated in Europe by BirdLife International in 1981, the IBA Program now exists in over 160 countries and 48 U.S. states. IBAs are identified using straightforward, science-based criteria. Identification of a site as an IBA requires supporting documentation, particularly data on bird species diversity and abundance, and review by a panel of bird and habitat experts. This process provides a scientifically defensible way to prioritize conservation actions and allocate limited resources to ensure maximum benefit for birds. Once sites are identified as IBAs, collaborative conservation strategies can be developed voluntarily to maintain and manage the sites for the species they support. In Wisconsin, the IBA Program is being implemented as part of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI), a statewide coalition of over 160 organizations working collaboratively to advance bird conservation. Eighty-six IBAs have been identified in Wisconsin (Steele 2007) and the program is transitioning into the conservation-management phase.
The process of IBA nomination, data collection, and formal recognition served as the catalyst for a diverse group of stakeholders to come together to discuss voluntary collaborations for managing the IBA as a landscape while respecting individual property goals. The bird survey results provided an excellent foundation for identifying potential stewardship activities, a foundation few other IBAs enjoy. This process can serve as a model for inventory, evaluation, and goal-setting on other IBAs and important resource management areas with single or multiple ownerships.
IBA recognition does not confer any legal status or carry any regulatory requirements. The inclusion of land within an IBA boundary is entirely voluntary on the part of the landowner or land manager. The IBA Program relies on voluntary collaboration to meet its conservation goals, and considers such grassroots participation to be a strength. All landowners are invited to participate in the stewardship of this Important Bird Area.
The Beginnings of the IBA Project
It’s no secret that bird populations are declining in Wisconsin, across the Americas, and around the world. The Important Bird Area (IBA) program is playing an important role in responding to this global phenomenon by identifying sites where some of the “motive power” of a landscape—the place’s characteristic birds—can be protected or brought back.
In 2007, the Aldo Leopold Foundation and other partners came together to celebrate the dedication of the Leopold-Pine Island IBA. Encompassing 11,000 acres, this IBA includes land owned and managed by a federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners. Covering miles of Wisconsin River floodplain and adjacent uplands, the Leopold-Pine Island IBA includes ecosystems from dry sand barrens to lush floodplain forests.
The morning of the dedication was punctuated by the calls of geese and cranes; staging in the area prior to fall migration, the birds were winging their way from their roosting grounds to the morning’s feeding grounds. Thousands of sandhill cranes, a significant percentage of Wisconsin’s population, roost during fall staging at Wisconsin River sandbars and shallows protected by the Phill and Joan Pines, the IBA dedication’s hosts.
“Phill and Joan and other private landowners within this IBA truly are leading by example,” said Yoyi Steele, Wisconsin’s IBA Coordinator. The Pines are preserving and actively restoring 2,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and prairie, home to an array of breeding birds with very different habitat needs.
“Birds don’t care if they’re on public or private land, a wildlife area or a park, or a county forest or someone’s back forty,” Steele explained. “They care about habitats and the resources they need. Conservation will not be as effective if you don’t pay attention to the way birds use landscapes, and try to meet their needs across those landscapes.”
Striving to meet the needs of birds and other wildlife across landscapes is an ecological necessity and a conservation priority. Research has shown that even areas as large as Yellowstone National Park are not large enough to fully meet the needs of wide-ranging resident wildlife, and certainly migratory species depend on healthy habitat beyond the borders of a park or preserve.
Shifting focus from managing small, publicly-owned preserves to partnering with neighbors and beyond was integral to Leopold’s vision of effective conservation. The original IBA proposal focused on the historically significant Leopold Shack and Farm and the diverse and extensive Pine Island property, but the potential for wider collaboration was soon apparent.
The proposal expanded to include the entire Leopold Memorial Reserve, owned and managed by multiple partners, the Pines’ property, the Lower Baraboo River Waterfowl Production Area (a collaboration between the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service), and the Lower Baraboo River Floodplain Forest, including USFWS and private property. As Steele explained, “This IBA has served as a catalyst for something which might not have happened otherwise—the bringing together of all these different landowners and land managers in one place to explore how we all can collaborate to maintain and improve this IBA as a whole while still meeting the needs and goals of our individual properties.”
Each IBA must meet several scientific criteria to be approved, so collecting data was an initial focus. In 2005, baseline surveys were conducted to determine which bird species were already using the properties for breeding habitat or during migration. Wisconsin DNR ecologist Mike Mossman conducted surveys during the breeding season, crossing and re-crossing the Leopold Memorial Preserve, Pine Island State Wildlife Area, and the Pines’ property on foot and by canoe.
The parallel transects were spaced a quarter mile apart, and Mossman stopped every quarter mile along each transect to listen and watch for bird activity. Each transect and point was mapped using GPS, meaning the survey can be replicated in the future to monitor changes.
The data showed that many species of high conservation concern were using the properties during the breeding season. Blue-winged teal, yellow-billed cuckoo, bald eagle, osprey, woodcock, blue-winged warbler, red-headed woodpecker, willow flycatcher, vesper sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, and bobolink are among the 108 species considered to be breeding on the IBA. Their habitats included floodplain forest, marsh, open water, oak savanna, and several types of grassland.
Partners met in May of 2007 to discuss the findings of the bird surveys, tour the properties, and discuss possible paths for the future. The discussion is ongoing, but one early result was ALF and the DNR collaborating on a grant application which would fund invasive species control and other management in swamp white oak savannas, a rare native plant community found on both the Leopold Farm and Pine Island.
Kevin McAleese, program director for the Sand County Foundation’s work on the Leopold Memorial Reserve, anticipates that the IBA may serve as a means to connect to more landowners in the area. “I don’t see this as static. The IBA designation is just a beginning, an indication of what’s possible,” McAleese said.
Monitoring and research that demonstrates how birds use the landscape may be an important tool for education and outreach, McAleese noted. “What is it about the Leopold Memorial Reserve that’s special? Wildlife can help tell that story,” he said—“The birds themselves are much more tangible and compelling than a discussion of management goals.”
For more information about the Leopold/Pine Island IBA, contact ecologist Steve Swenson at email@example.com or 608.355.0279, ext. 29.