Southern Driftless Grasslands
Southwest Wisconsin is a treasure trove of prairie and savanna remnants hidden within a sea of working farms and open fields, rolling hills of grasslands and wide valleys, trout streams and small mouth bass rivers. It is one of the best grassland ecosystem conservation opportunity areas in the Upper Midwest. There has never been a more important time to preserve grasslands. Grasslands support populations of numerous birds in serious decline, such as the Bobolink and the Meadowlark, they provide habitat for pollinators, and serve as sponges to slow the flood waters so prevalent in our region today.
The Southern Driftless Grasslands is an active and energized partnership of local, state, and federal agencies as well as non-profit conservation organizations who have a shared mission: to actively support land stewardship and conservation in southwest Wisconsin, to the benefit of the health of the region's grasslands, wildlife, water, farms, and communities. The partnership works together to assist landowners of working and non-working lands to create, steward, and protect grassland habitat in Southwest Wisconsin.
OUR STORY AND VISION
Southwestern Wisconsin – specifically, the Southwest Savanna Ecological Landscape - has been recognized for more than 30 years as one of the best landscape-scale grassland ecosystem conservation opportunities in the Upper Midwest. The area stands out for its distinct combination of resources: a high number of unplowed prairie remnants; concentrations of rare grassland plants and animals, and many spring-fed streams, all set within an expansive rural farming region of open fields, pastures, croplands, grassland fields enrolled in conservation programs, oak savannas, and small communities.
This recognition led to efforts to mobilize a partnership in southwest Wisconsin, and over the past 15 years there have been partners working together promoting grassland management and protection. In 2018 the newly minted/restored Southern Driftless Grasslands (formerly Southwest Wisconsin Grasslands Network) partnership was established with funding support from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Driftless Area Land Conservancy serving as facilitator. Since, we have grown to include support and engagement from 14 different federal, state, and county agencies, and non-profit conservation organizations and have secured funding for programming and land protection projects on private land.
Photo credit: Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy
The partnership project came into being over widely shared concerns about the natural resources of the historical prairie and oak savanna landscape that characterizes southwest Wisconsin:
• Catastrophic state- and continent-wide declines in populations of cherished grassland birds such as Bobolinks and Meadowlarks, Henslow’s Sparrow and Savanna Sparrow.
• Threats to the many rare plants and insects of native prairies and oak savannas – these alone are two of the most threatened native ecosystems in Wisconsin.
• Compromised surface and ground water problems associated with agriculture in the steep topography in this Driftless region.
• Increasing home development threatening the region’s pastoral, agricultural landscape.
Photo credit: Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy
The Southern Driftless Grasslands project area is the last and best stronghold for grassland birds in the state. Populations of grassland birds are in serious decline across their ranges, a fact most startlingly brought home by the recent 3 Billion Birds report, which showed that grassland birds have suffered an overall 53% population loss since 1970. One species, the Eastern Meadowlark, has declined overall by 75% nationwide; Wisconsin has experienced similar declines. The long-term sustainability of rare grassland birds including Upland Sandpiper, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Bobolink depends upon the conservation of large, open grassland landscapes. While such landscapes are now largely absent from Wisconsin, they still are found in the SWGN project area. While grassland birds are the conservation target that currently shapes our conservation strategic plan; these protection efforts will, in turn, benefit our rural communities, streams and springs, and prairie and savanna remnants.
The Southern Driftless Grasslands partnership utilizes a conservation design concept known as grassland Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs). Grassland BCAs are large, predominantly treeless areas of at least 10,000 acres, each with a > 2,000-acre core of permanently protected, contiguous grassland, surrounded by a matrix of working lands (cropland and pastures) and idle grassland fields under short-term or permanent term protection. This model incorporates a mix of both protected and working lands. There are four grassland BCAs in the project, the Perry-Primrose BCA, the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, the Barreltown BCA, and the Garrison Grove BCA. In each of these are grasslands protected by the state, land trusts, and through program enrollment as well as extensive acreage in pasture and hay. We are focusing our outreach efforts currently in these four BCAs, understanding that it is here that we can have the largest impact protecting our conservation targets.
Our main website -- www.driftlessgrasslands.org -- will be structured as a resource/information hub for landowners of all kinds. Our goal is to provide the resources and contact information of partners ready to assist you in managing, restoring, and protecting grassland habitat of all kinds, whether a high quality prairie or savanna remnant, a field enrolled in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), or a pasture in need of brush removal and fence line clean-up. All of these types of habitats can add collectively to the amount of grass “on the ground” and create continuity amongst patches of grass.
The larger the extent of open, high quality grass habitat we can supply, the more birds will come. Let us build it so they will come!
Photo credit: Gerald H. Emmerich Jr.
Special Thanks to:
• Driftless Area Land Conservancy
• Fish and Wildlife Service
• WI Department of Natural Resources
• American Bird Conservancy
• UW Extension Iowa County
• Iowa County Conservation Department
• Pheasants Forever
• Dane County Water and Land Conservation Department
• The Prairie Enthusiasts
• The Nature Conservancy
• Farm Service Agency
• Natural Resource Conservation Service
• Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
• Madison Audubon Society
• United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
• Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR)
• Cornell Lab or Ornithology
• Pheasant Stamp Fund
• Food Faith and Farming Network