The Leopold-Pines Conservation Area (LPCA) is a collection of culturally and ecologically significant properties along the Wisconsin River in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Owned by the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Phillip and Joan Pines Family, these lands are stewarded to address global conservation needs—declining populations of birds and pollinators and climate change adaptation. This stewardship becomes increasingly imperative when understood in the context of the world's ecological crisis; a loss of biodiversity at a rate not seen since the last mass extinction and greenhouse gas concentrations at their highest levels in 2 million years. The LPCA land management plan focuses on both species of conservation need and anticipated climatic change. In addition to informing land management on these properties, we hope this plan inspires other properties to see their conservation opportunities relative to a global context.
During the last glaciation (20,000 BP), the Wisconsin River as we know it today deposited a layer of sandy soils ideal for the expansion of prairies and savannas across what we know as the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area. European settlement in the 1840s subdued the natural disturbances of fire and flooding that allowed these nearly treeless ecosystems to flourish. The new settlers cultivated, mowed, timbered, and grazed nearly every acre for agriculture and sustenance, some of which kept the proliferation of “woodies” in check. After many generations of ownership, subsistence farming gave way to rental agriculture, with only the better soils remaining in cultivation and grazing all but eliminated. Subsequently, brush and tree growth flourished. Today, our land managers strive to weave the regional geographic history with knowledge of the changing climate and local ecological needs to construct management objectives that rediscover our past as it aligns with our predicted future. To the luck of the landscape, climate adaptation specialists have predicted the pre-European settlement ecosystems of prairies and savannas will benefit from the forecasted increase in temperature and disturbance.
The Aldo Leopold Foundation places its stewardship initiatives within the long history between people and land. Historically, local American Indians maintained the fertility and productivity of the area through cultivation, prescribed fire, hunting, and gathering. Subsequent European settlement led to fire suppression and nutrient depletion as the land was more intensively and widely farmed and grazed. Aldo Leopold began his conservation relationship to the land in 1935 through planting a prairie and trees on worn-out agricultural fields. The humble Leopold Shack and property have become a cultural icon for those in conservation and familiar with Leopold’s masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, with the site carrying the distinction as the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm National Historic Landmark.
The Leopold-Pines Conservation Area beginnings trace back to the conservation leadership (and friendship) between Nina Leopold Bradley and Phill Pines. Nina, and her husband Charles, moved back to the property in the mid-1970s to care for the historic site and further their understanding of the land through student research projects. Phill began restoring land just across the river from the Leopold property in the 1980s. Phill and Joan purchased 435 acres in 1979 and over 32 years added 25 more parcels totaling 2,400 acres. Phill and Nina forged a friendship watching thousands of sandhill cranes roosting in the river behind Leopold Shack and Phill and Joan’s home. In 2008, these properties, along with an additional 11,000 acres downstream of state and federal properties, were dedicated as one of our state’s Important Bird Areas. Phill and Joan’s son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Margie Pines, purchased 1,000 acres in 2015 adjacent Leopold’s historic property. Today, the foundation and Pines stewardship staff work together to manage the approximately 4,000 acres known as the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area.
To guide the management actions, a list of ecological principles was developed. These principles depict broad ecological statements that lead to beneficial habitats for native birds and pollinators, and create a climate-adapted landscape.
As ecological principles were drafted for birds, pollinators, and climate adaption, similarities became apparent. Rather than only writing distinct bird, pollinator, or climate adaptation principles, concepts were merged and categorized under general ecological principles when they applied to all three topics.
Management in the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area has the overarching goal of sustaining and creating habitats that native flora and fauna depend on. In our region of Wisconsin, ecosystems emerged from the sandy soils deposited by glaciers and evolved with natural disturbances, such as flooding, wind, and fire. Ecosystems that developed from these factors include prairies, savannas, barrens, woodlands, floodplain forests, and wetlands. These ecosystems are in various stages of restoration across the LPCA. By focusing on ecosystem management, our restoration work should service most native species that have adapted to these plant communities. Communities the LPCA is managing are summarized below:
Ecosystem descriptions are based on communities’ descriptions created by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
To ensure that our habitat management and creation is successfully building toward the native ecosystem, indicator species are used. Indicator species are species that reflect the biotic or abiotic state of an environment. Therefore, if we change the habitat structure to what we assume will benefit the native ecosystem, we can use the presence or absence of these species to gauge if the land management was successful.
Of the Leopold-Pine Island IBA’s 117 breeding bird species, 23 are identified as Indicator species for the LPCA based on high regional conservation priorities and the ability to inform management.
The 23 Indicator Species with moderate or high opportunity to inform management decision-making at the Leopold-Pine Memorial Reserve by broad habitat category.
Much of the region was historically oak savanna—prairie with a few scattered oak, or other fire-tolerant species. Bird surveys in 2005 and 2011 indicated that our best efforts were still falling well-short of anticipated increases in our priority species. Although we noted a reduction mid-story brush and trees, the overall canopy remained largely unchanged, as evidenced by the forest bird community that continued to occupy these areas. Prompted by the data, in 2015, we conducted a 169-acre timber harvest within our floodplain forest, resulting in a tree canopy density more similar to a savanna. Similar treatments were conducted through a variety of methods across other part of the entire Important Bird Area (IBA). In 2016, bird data was collected across the entire IBA, allowing us to compare previous savanna areas that had undergone intensive restoration and those left untouched.
The relative abundance of priority species was modeled using observation station as the experimental unit. For each station, the binomial count of the number of priority species out of the total birds observed served as the response variable. Binomial logistic regression models were used to model the relative abundance of priority species using year (2005, 2011, 2016) as a continuous predictor variable and intervention status (intervention/no intervention) as a categorical predictor variable. The interaction of year and intervention status was included in the logistic models to allow assessment of whether or not the trend in relative abundance over time differs between intervention and non-intervention properties. Separate models considered the relative abundance of all priority species and the relative abundance of savanna priority species.
Small p-values (less than 0.05) on the interaction terms (Year:Intervention) suggest that the trend in relative abundance over time differs significantly between intervention and non-intervention properties.
When modeling the time trend for the relative abundance of all priority species across the entire IBA (not adjusting for interventions), we estimate that the odds of observing a priority versus non-priority species decreases by 1.3% each year (or equivalently, multiplies by exp(-0.013)=0.987 for each year that passes). This decrease in the relative abundance over time is statistically significant (OR=0.987, p-value = 0.047). However, it is not an exceptionally fast rate of decline. We note that multiplying by 1 would correspond to no change in the estimated relative abundance. Here we are multiplying by 0.987, a value just shy of 1.
When we focus on Savanna priority species only, we find that when not accounting for interventions, there is not a significant trend in relative abundance over time (OR=1.001, p-value = 0.916). However, when adjusting for interventions and allowing an intervention by time interaction, we estimate that the odds of observing a Savanna species exhibits a significant increase over time on intervention properties (OR=1.075, p-value=0.010), while the odds of observing Savanna priority species on non-intervention properties does not change significantly (decreases non-significantly) over time (OR=0.980, p-value=0.156). The change in time trends between the intervention and non-intervention properties is statistically significant (p-value = 0.003).
Our savanna bird indicator species significantly increased across the three sampling periods on former savanna sites that were intensively and intentionally managed. To us this demonstrated our fundamental assumption that “if you build it, they will come.” It is quite common within our own work and conservation action more broadly that the successful application of tools is the metric and outcomes are assumed. However, prior to the large-scale timber harvest and more demonstrative conversion of the floodplain forest to savanna, our management through burning and brushing was not successfully achieving an increase in our savanna indicator species. Our greatest lesson was knowing that a greater level of intentionality and action, which at times was unaesthetic to stakeholders, was necessary to achieve our stated conservation impact.
The foundation aims to inform and inspire others to implement their land ethic by practicing innovative conservation land management on site. At the foundation, this means applying conservation planning and action to every acre of the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area.
If you are interested in learning more about the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, please contact:
Steve Swenson | Program Director
The Aldo Leopold Foundation was founded in 1982 with a mission to foster the land ethic through the legacy of Aldo Leopold, awakening an ecological conscience in people throughout the world.