Caring For Land Following Leopold

Stewardship crew pulling invasives

A key part of our work is ongoing stewardship of the pines, prairies, and floodplain forests that make up the historic Leopold Shack property and surrounding 600 acres. The way we do this is rooted in the Leopold family’s own ambitions for the worn out farm it acquired in the 1930s alongside the Wisconsin River.

As they worked to restore the property, Aldo Leopold and his family didn’t focus on recovering any specific piece of nature, such as pine trees or the soil. Rather they aspired to bring back overall “land health,” defined by Leopold as the capacity for self-renewal in the soil, water, plants, and animals that together make up “the land.”

The land consists of soil, water, plants, and animals, but health is more than a sufficiency of these components. It is a state of vigorous self-renewal in each of them, and in all collectively. – Aldo Leopold

Today, we continue to emphasize ecosystem health as we care for this historic landscape. Moreover, because Leopold’s conservation vision called for a shift from managing small, separate parcels to partnering with neighbors, we also help steward the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA), a 16,000-acre preserve for rare bird species.

Interpreting Land Health Through Birds

While achieving land health is our goal, land health itself is difficult to measure. That’s why we use the abundance and diversity of birds as a indicator of overall ecosystem health, including healthy soil, good water quality, and plant biodiversity.

There are several reasons for this. Birds are relatively easy to identify and count, for one. The habitat needs of specific species are also extremely well studied, meaning that the success or failure of different birds tells us a lot about how the plants, animals, and other parts of the ecosystem are faring.

aldo-leopold-the-land-prescribed-burn

Prescribed burning is one way we manage for grassland bird species and land health.

Dramatic declines in bird species, in particular, tell us something important. Most of the time, these losses reflect a similar drop in the quality of bird breeding habitat. And in southern Wisconsin, no habitat has declined more precipitously over the past 150 years than prairie and savanna.

Thus, our goal is to restore and improve prairie, savanna, and wetland ecosystems critical to the survival of grassland bird species.

Simultaneously, we use measured increases (or declines) in our priority bird species as an indicator of the overall quality of these habitats. A high-quality prairie, for example, will have greater bird species diversity and abundance than one of equal size dominated by a few invasive species.

Birding Opportunities

also-leopold-the-land-meadowlark

The meadowlark, one of our priority birds.

There is another reason to emphasize birds: Their widespread popularity around the globe make them ideal ambassadors for conservation’s cause.

That’s where you come in. Birding is a popular activity both on the Leopold Foundation property and the larger Leopold-Pine Island IBA. Spring (April to June) and fall (September to October) are the best times to see wildlife.

Beginning in April, dozens of bird species are migrating through, with breeding species nesting between the end of May and mid-July. Starting in August and continuing through December, migrants are making their way back through.

One area to look for birds is along our 2.5-mile trail network. From the Leopold Center where it starts, the trail system traverses a diverse landscape, including oak savanna, wetlands, and a high-quality, dry prairie remnant overlooking the Wisconsin River Valley.

Other birding opportunities can be found near the historic Leopold Shack. There is a one-mile trail loop on the property, with a side trail leading to the Wisconsin River through a beautiful floodplain forest. There, visitors frequently spot bald eagles, sandhill cranes, and other wildlife.