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Leopold-Pines Conservation Area

An image of the people surveying the Leopold-Pines Conservation area

Overview and History 

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.  

Sparrow is among the most threatened of all bird species found on the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area. We manage for its preferred habitat which is large areas of prairie with well-developed and accumulated thatch.

Our Moment in the Sweep of History

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.  

History of Stewardship

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.

Phill Pines (white t-shirt) leading a tour of his ambitious wetland restoration which encompassed significant upland soil removal and redirecting previously ditched surface water into a historic streambed.

Principles of Management

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. 

General Ecological Principles

  1. Consider management within the context of the entire plant-animal community: Bird, pollinator, and climate adaptation objectives aim to reflect the range of conditions that suit not only these species but other native plant and animal species as well.
  2. Expand habitat areas: Larger blocks of habitat are better than small blocks because they are managed more efficiently, provide for species that may be sensitive to edge or area effects, increase the likelihood of a landscape rebounding after disturbance, create opportunities for genetic variations, and accommodate natural variation in site characteristics and structure.
  3. Connect blocks of habitat: Blocks of similar habitats should be connected when possible and practical to establish and maintain variance in species populations and provide greater access for foraging, hunting, and nesting.
  4. Consider the influence of the surrounding landscape: A habitat surrounded by a physically similar habitat (e.g., prairie adjacent savanna) is of more value than a habitat surrounded by a physically dissimilar habitat (e.g., prairie adjacent dense forest). 
  5. Temporal and spatial dynamism create naturally fluxing populations: Specific habitat types, their distribution, and their abundance are in a constant state of flux. Under appropriate management, the populations of some Indicator bird species will move around the IBA over time. The important result is the retention of long-term population levels across the entire IBA. 
  6. Gradual ecotones are of more value than hard or sharp transitions between habitat types. These ecotones allow individual species and communities to shift or migrate readily to changing conditions, such as hydrology and climate.
  7. Invasive species are an ongoing and significant issue. Their effect may be direct and immediate (e.g., by quickly creating simple monotypic stands suitable for only a few species) or more gradual and long-term (e.g., thick shrub growth limiting the establishment of tree seedlings in forest stands). In either case, extreme or widespread invasions can limit future management options. 
  8. Community and Structural Diversity: Intentional habitat diversity will be more resilient to unanticipated future scenarios and create robust nesting and foraging sites for birds and pollinators.
  9. Disturbance regimes in open (grassland, marsh) and semi-open (savanna, barrens, shrub carr) habitats should vary in time and method, including timber harvest, mechanical removal, chemical treatment, cultivation, mowing, grazing, and burning. This variance in disturbance will ensure that a single species is neither always benefiting nor losing.
  10. Reimagine agricultural lands to fit the needs of birds, pollinators, and changing climate conditions:  Cultivated agricultural lands offer little substitute for the habitat value of native communities, however, can serve soil health and clean water and air. If agricultural use is maintained, regenerative farming practices should be implemented. If feasible for the landowner, conversion of agricultural lands to native plant communities, presumably prairie or wetland, should be considered. Habitat conversion is especially relevant in the LPCA as expanding habitat acreage next to other restored acres will amplify the land’s ability to host species that require large territories. 

Bird Specific Principles

  1. Woody cover in open grasslands, such as sedge meadow, prairie, and oldfield, should be scattered or clumped, less than 15% cover, and ephemeral. Exotic woody growth should not be tolerated, while native, flowering woody growth provides desirable foraging habitat for pollinators.
  2. Savanna structure can be variable, with 5-30% canopy cover, most of it from mature, open-grown fire-resistant trees, primarily oaks, and 0-30% total shrub and sapling cover.
  3. “Surrogate” (non-native) communities can have high or low values to indicator birds: In general, the types of active agriculture that provide appropriate habitat for indicator and other breeding birds include low-to-moderate-intensity pasture and late-cut hay. Additionally, many grassland and shrub habitats dominated by non-native ground cover or simplified mixtures of native grasses can be valuable to indicator birds.
  4. River corridor management involves minimizing human disturbance during Sandhill and Whooping Crane migration in October-November, especially at traditional staging areas.

Pollinator Specific Principles

  1. Target pesticide use: While pesticides can be necessary for invasive control, land managers should use them with precision and knowledge of their impact on the surrounding ecosystem.
  2. Ensure foraging habitat is available throughout the growing season: A diversity of blooming forb species will provide pollinators with consistent forage from spring to fall.
  3. Pollinators need undisturbed habitats for nesting and overwintering: Disturbance, such as tilling, burning, mowing, or grazing, can destroy the overwintering and nesting sites of pollinators. If a disturbance is going to take place for management, 30% of the area should remain undisturbed to create refugia for the pollinators.

Climate Adaptation Specific Principles

  1. Maintain and enhance genetic diversity: As climate change causes an increase in disturbance, populations with greater genetic diversity will be more likely to survive and adapt to changing landscapes. Management should promote this diversity by seeding areas with local species varieties, and varieties from higher hardiness zones to prepare land for adaption. Further, we assume this can be reached by managing a large area of land that spans many physical gradients of moisture and sunlight availability to help us achieve this principle. 
  2. Intentionally choose to take no action: Not actively managing a section of land can serve as an example of what the landscape would look like if humans did not act. While this land management plan highly promotes active management, this perspective allows low-priority areas to naturally adapt to the changing ecosystem.
  3. Protect and sustain key infrastructure by employing protective measures to minimize damage from disturbance events. Unexpected weather events make protective measures, such as burn breaks surrounding the properties and proper drainage away from buildings, increasingly important.  

Humanistic Principles

  1. Engage human communities in conservation: Outreach strategies should be developed to communicate the importance of protecting birds, pollinators and managing a climate-adapted landscape. The engagement of this community should be inclusive, with intentional efforts to engage stakeholders such as local indigenous people, local landowners, ecological experts, and government partners.
  2. Management goals should match site, landscape, and ownership limitations and opportunities: The art of balancing both science and practicality are essential if management is to succeed without wasted time and effort. For example, in Unit 1 of the LPCA, several fields are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP establishes permanent, perennial habitat for wildlife and retains agriculture status for tax purposes. This tax reduction not only aids the CRP unit but also lowers the taxes for any adjacent forested land. Further, CRP fields require an infrequent burning regime, making this area an ideal site for Henslow's Sparrow habitat.  

Targeted Ecosystems

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:

  • Prairie: characterized by a lack of trees and tall shrubs and are dominated by grasses, sedges, and forbs. They can occur in a wide variety of topographies, soil types, and moisture regimes. 
  • Savanna and Barrens: characterized by partial tree canopy and open areas dominated by herbaceous vegetation, with barrens tending to occur in drier, sandier landscapes. Both types of communities are dependent on fire for their formation and maintenance.
  • Oak Woodland: occupies a position on the vegetation continuum that is intermediate between the oak savannas and the oak forests (especially southern dry forest). Oak woodlands differ from oak savannas in that they lack the wide-spreading crowns and thick boles associated with savannas, and they have greater crown closure, with an approximate range of 50-95%. 
  • Floodplain Forest: characterized by their location along major rivers and seasonal flooding and associated scouring, silt deposition, and removal of organic detritus. They share similar species with southern hardwood swamps, which are also seasonally wet and usually dry out by mid-late summer.
  • Wetland: contains soil, or other substrates, that is periodically saturated with or covered by water. A wetland is defined in the Wisconsin Statutes as "an area where water is at, near, or above the land surface long enough to be capable of supporting aquatic or hydrophytic vegetation and which has soils indicative of wet conditions."

Ecosystem descriptions are based on communities’ descriptions created by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

Indicator Species

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.

A few of the priority species for the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area. Clockwise from top-center: Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, Sandhill Crane, Veery, Black Tern, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Wood Thrush (center).

Signs of Success: An Example among our savanna bird indicator Species

Our Land Management of Savanna Plant Communities 

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.

Statistical Methods

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.

Results

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).

Discussion 

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.  

Can our model be yours? 

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

An image of Steve Swenson

About the Author

Steve Swenson

Steve Swenson is the Program Director for the Aldo Leopold Foundation.