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Conservation Across Ownerships

The Leopold-Pine Island IBA is an Example

An expansive 15,000 acres of grasslands, wetlands, river bottoms and forest between Wisconsin Dells and Portage are managed to maintain healthy populations of birds and wildlife. The Leopold Shack and Family Farm is a National Historic Landmark in part because it inspired Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, but also because it was his family’s outdoor laboratory for pioneering work in ecological restoration from 1935 to 1948. Seeing the future without leaving the past, this pioneering work continues but now across an even larger landscape. The 15,000-acre Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (LPI IBA) was dedicated in 2007 and led to coordinated management across multiple ownerships. What began as an effort to achieve conservation at a more meaningful scale has blossomed into a demonstration and destination for the upper Midwest.

From Alaska’s Arctic Slope to New York City’s Jamaica Bay to the Florida Everglades, Important Bird Areas identify, monitor, and protect the most important habitats for birds.

One of this IBA’s distinguishing characteristics is the diverse land owners:  Wisconsin DNR’s Pine Island Wildlife Area, US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Baraboo River Waterfowl Production Area, and large private properties of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, Jim and Margie Pines, and Phill and Joan Pines Family.

The land is as diverse as the ownership. It’s located at the juncture of three ecological regions: the ancient, sandy bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin to the north; the marshy, lightly rolling glaciated territory to the east; and the older hills of the Driftless Area to the south and west.  It is a landscape shaped by ice and flowing water. Thousands of years ago, glaciers smoothed the land and left hills of sand and gravel, after which the Wisconsin River course developed, draining the glacial lake and depositing thick beds of sand. These dramatic forces, along with the influence of fire over the landscape, gave rise to many different plant communities including submergent and emergent wetlands, upland and lowland forests, savannas, and grasslands. As the land was settled, cultivation, grazing, timber harvesting, changes in surface and groundwater flow, fire control and human development, and the introduction of invasive species have greatly altered the land.

Bobolink

Bobolink singing. Photo courtesy of J. Bartholmai.

This mix of landscapes and activities has provided for fantastic birdlife by enhancing areas that breeding birds use. Owners are managing floodplain forests for red-shouldered hawks and prothonotary warblers; restoring shrub and savanna used by willow flycatchers and red-headed woodpeckers; maintaining the grasslands that are home to Henslow’s sparrows, bobolinks, and eastern meadowlarks; and improving marshes that hold swamp sparrows, blue-winged teal and great flocks of sandhill cranes. On the Pines property, 10-15 percent of Wisconsin’s sandhill crane population gathers on the river sandbars each fall forming migration flocks, with a few whooping cranes now among them.

The mix of habitats and birds challenges conservation planning. It’s not just a matter of “managing habitat”. Strategy is important. What’s good for one species is not always good for another. Some wildlife species are in greater need than others. Many need large tracts of habitat because they have large territories or do not breed successfully near habitat boundaries, while others thrive on habitat “edges.” So connecting habitats across different ownerships, and ensuring that all important habitats are present in sufficient abundance takes some planning and cooperation among landowners. Increasingly, this sort of challenge represents the future of wildlife conservation.

In this regard, birds can be an “ace in the hole” for managers. Since they move freely across the landscape and use habitat without regard to ownership, they unify properties. People readily understand that birds have well-defined habitat requirements, and their abundance can indicate the quality of breeding sites. Birds’ unique songs and colors make them easy to identify, allowing large areas to be surveyed quickly.  In addition, a diversity of birds usually goes hand-in-hand with an overall richness of plants and other wildlife. As with any good indicator, understanding the bird community allows us to understand so much more.

Eastern meadowlark singing

Eastern meadowlark singing. Photo courtesy of J. Bartholmai.

Surveys encompassing all properties have yielded a list of 125 breeding species and at least 40 migrant species. However, planning land management for that many species would send even a bird expert’s head spinning. We wanted to focus on those that really need the help and for which this IBA can make a difference. Using national, regional and statewide conservation plans, we narrowed the list to 30 Priority Species. These Priority birds serve as “ambassadors” for hundreds of other common birds and other animals and plants that depend on these same habitats. The management activities proposed in the plan include timber harvests, prescribed burning, prairie plantings, mowing, invasive species control, and wetland and stream restorations. We also built in the goals of each landowner so the plan was mutually beneficial for people, wildlife, and the land.

The IBA partnership and process has cultivated many values: communication, data collection, purposeful action, evaluation, trust, and respect. Not only are these the hallmarks of excellent conservation, but of lasting relationships between people and land.  And, in our increasingly complex landscape, understanding our relationship with the land and with one another is our best chance to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Family Legacies

Although Aldo Leopold and Phill Pines never met, their enduring legacies have made them neighbors. Phill and Joan Pines first bought land in the area in 1979 and spent the next 32 years amassing 2,500 acres across the river from Leopold’s shack.  In the fall of 2011, Phill and Joan received the prestigious Leopold Restoration Award, nominated by their good friend, the late Nina Leopold Bradley, Aldo Leopold’s daughter. The honor marked many years of tangible conservation projects that benefited students, the public, and most importantly the land.  Phill, age 76, was less than one year into his retirement when he passed, leaving many plans and ambitions unfulfilled.   

Phill Pines stands with Yoyi Steele and Mike Mossman

Yoyi Steele and Mike Mossman with Phill Pines listening for grassland birds and discussing appropriate habitat management. Photo courtesy of Steve Swenson.

 “We wanted to memorialize his conservation ethic in some way. He valued land and viewed stewardship as a responsibility, not an option,” said Jim Pines, Phill and Joan’s son. In 2015, Jim and Margie Pines didn’t miss their opportunity to purchase an additional 1,000 acres adjacent the Aldo Leopold National Historic Landmark.  “Margie and I could not have dreamed of a more appropriate opportunity to expand the conservation legacy of my father,” stated Jim. “I am genuinely excited to partner with the Aldo Leopold Foundation on many future conservation projects. We already have a solid start on plans for the Important Bird Area. I value their many years of experience and deeply respect the people and their cause.”  


The feature image, top, shows the distribution of the high priority grassland birds (bobolink, eastern meadowlark, Henslow’s sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, and sedge wren) across the IBA that require large grasslands for breeding habitat. Sincere thanks to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation for their generous support of the data collection and mapping for the project. See the full map here, courtesy of Brian Loeffelholz.


Did you enjoy this article? It appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of The Leopold Outlook. Become a member and get the magazine delivered to your mailbox!

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