Maintaining a small prairie remnant in southeastern Wisconsin

slowlane

Observer
This January I adopted a small State Natural Area at the edge of Eagle, Wisconsin. For the past few years I have been looking to join the volunteer work days in the state forest in the southern Kettle Moraine region, but my work schedule is so variable it never seems to align with the volunteer dates. In December I discovered Eagle Center Prairie, an eight acre prairie/oak savanna remnant, was available for adoption. To adopt it the only stipulation was that I spend a minimum of two days per year (one spring and one fall) picking up trash and removing invasive species. This looked perfect since I am a prairie lover and can go out there to work by myself on my own schedule. I submitted an application to adopt the site and was accepted. In late January I was given a walk-through tour of the property and signed an adoption contract and liability waiver and I was now the volunteer caretaker of Eagle Center Prairie.

Of course, being January, everything out there was buried under nearly 2 feet of snow, so I waited for a couple of months and by late March the snow was gone and work could begin. This is a really small State Natural Area at just under eight acres, which should hopefully help make it fairly manageable for me. It is sort of triangular in shape at the south end of the village of Eagle, WI. The north side backs up to a neighborhood and the west end is bordered by State Hwy 67 which runs into the middle of town. The prairie is chiefly along the tops and steep southern slopes of the hills along the northern border of the site. There are several huge old bur oaks at various places though most suffered significant damage in a severe storm before I came to Wisconsin. In 2008 (I think) a tornado tore right through Eagle Center Prairie and obliterated many of the big oaks. In the intervening years some of the fallen dead ones have been cut up and removed, a few have not, and a fair number of dead trees still stand in the lowland at the center of the site. More steep hills rise at the southern border.

This little piece of land escaped the plow because it's hills were much too steep and rocky for cultivation. It was undoubtedly grazed at various times as this was once part of a farm, of which the house still stands across the southern border. Being a remnant prairie versus a restoration there is a lot more variety of native plants present. However, the land has not escaped the scourge of invasive buckthorn that chokes the forest understory of much of southeastern Wisconsin. There is a lot of it here and it will be a big task to mitigate it. Buckthorn is so tenacious there really is no removing it once it is established, you can only attempt to control and minimize the infestation. Also here, although in a much smaller quantity is buckthorn's partner in crime, garlic mustard. Together these two have displaced vast areas of native understory plants throughout this region. At Eagle Center Prairie though, quite a few native understory plants are still holding out against the onslaught.

That was a big reason why I wanted to work at this spot. I feel that with effort the native plants can hopefully thrive here. In late March I saw my first Pasqueflower ever on the easternmost hilltop, and in the central lowland there is the largest colony of Bloodroot I have seen. The plan for spring is to pull garlic mustard which has a pretty strong hold on one area in the lowland. I have pulled a little less than half of it as of writing this and hope to finish the rest of the area in a few weeks as the garlic mustard is already starting to flower. In the fall buckthorn removal will begin, and there is probably a few years worth of work to get that under control. This should be interesting.

Here are some pictures of Eagle Center Prairie State Natural Area from right about the time I adopted it in January.

On top of the first hill looking looking east.


One of the tornado-ravaged bur oaks that survived with new growth. All the brushy stuff underneath is buckthorn to be removed come this fall.


Standing at the southern border looking north to the prairie covered hills. Those hills will be my first focus for buckthorn removal come fall as they are the highest quality area on the property. The hill on the right is where the first picture was from.


Looking past some big bur oaks towards the lowland in the center of the site. Most all the low stuff beyond the trees is buckthorn needing removal.
 
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pith helmet

Well-known member
Very interesting, sounds like a labor of love. The prairie ecosystem is fascinating to me and have never been to WI. Do you use any targeted herbicide treatments with glyphosate or triclopyr with a dauber or injection on the Buckthorn? I have read that stuff is super tough. We deal with many invasive plants down here, always a battle.
Do you have pics?
 

slowlane

Observer
In late March the snow was gone and I made my first work trip to Eagle Center Praire. The first project was removing any trash I could find in the area. Just a few bottles on one of the hills and a 5-gallon bucket full of cans, bottles, and bags along Hwy 67. There is a huge blackberry patch along the highway though so that was really tedious and pokey. Then I started to cut back the sumac encroaching into the prairie area from the trees along its edges. Sumac is a native plant but its is a very aggressive one and if left unchecked you'll eventually have a hillside of sumac instead of a prairie. That occupied me for a few trips out there.

By mid April I started canvassing the area for garlic mustard and found one large infestation of it at the western end of the lowland at the base of the hill leading up to Hwy 67. This is now my main focus. I have pulled close to half of the garlic mustard from this area. I filled two trash bags full in about 4 hours today, took it home, and put it on my burn pile.

Throughout this project I have been making a survey of the native plants that I come across. I spend a bit of time walking the hills when I first get there to see whats growing and blooming. To date I've seen Pasqueflower, Prairie Smoke, Hoary Puccoon, Kittentail, Bellwort, Rue Anemone, Hepatica, Bloodroot, Pussytoes, Blue Phlox, and Early Buttercup. Today I also saw lots of Lupine and Wild Columbine starting to grow, though neither is blooming yet.

Here are some pictures from today.

Bellwort


Prairie Smoke. The blooms have not opened yet. Those red balls will open up and a tuft of fine silky hairs emerge and blow in the breeze creating the "smoke".


Kittentail


Blue Phlox


Looking back east from the last hill. It was a nice day.


Garlic mustard infestation in the lowland. The big green leaves are Bloodroot.


Garlic mustard plants in bloom. No good.


Garlic mustard removed. The seeds already in the ground stay viable for seven years. Ugh! The Bloodroot plants were in full bloom covered with 2" diameter white and yellow flowers last time I was here. It was amazing. Naturally my camera battery was dead.
 
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slowlane

Observer
Very interesting, sounds like a labor of love. The prairie ecosystem is fascinating to me and have never been to WI. Do you use any targeted herbicide treatments with glyphosate or triclopyr with a dauber or injection on the Buckthorn? I have read that stuff is super tough. We deal with many invasive plants down here, always a battle.
Do you have pics?
Pics posted now. Southern Wisconsin was at the very edge of where the prairie transitioned into forest. There weren't many large prairies, but there were islands of prairie here and there especially on dry hills. There was lots of oak savanna, essentially prairie plants growning under an open oak canopy, but those are nearly extinct between farming and fire supression, the latter of which results in woody growth taking over the grasses. As with most of the tallgrass prairie in the U.S., very little of it remains here, and much of that is restored former cropland or pasture. True remnants are very rare. I will be cutting and treating the buckthorn with glyphosate. I have an applicator bottle with a foam tip that you basically paint the herbicide onto the stump with. In the woods at the house I use a Weed Wrench on the smaller buckthorns, about an inch and a half in diameter or less, to pull them roots and all. I tried it at the prairie but it's too aggressive and causes too much disruption of the prairie sod, so I won't use it there.
 

pith helmet

Well-known member
That pic of the hills is exactly what I had in my mind. You mentioned fire suppression and I was going to ask about historical fire and modern fire regimes in that ecosystem and if you planned to use. We use fire in management of southern yellow pine understory here. A big problem we are having with that is that we have invasive climbing fern that thrives after fire.
 

Howard70

Adventurer
Hello Slowlane:

Thanks for sharing this with us. I admire your interest and care for a natural system.

Howard
 

slowlane

Observer
That pic of the hills is exactly what I had in my mind. You mentioned fire suppression and I was going to ask about historical fire and modern fire regimes in that ecosystem and if you planned to use. We use fire in management of southern yellow pine understory here. A big problem we are having with that is that we have invasive climbing fern that thrives after fire.
This site has been burned at least once since the tornado in the late 2000's. Historically I'm not sure. I have looked online at old aerial photos of this spot going back to 1941. At least until the late 1970's there appeared to be very little brush there. I suspect it was due to grazing and when that stopped the brush gradually accumulated. The tornado damage seemed to really have had an effect on the brush in the low middle area. With many of the big oaks gone down there the brushy stuff has really taken off. I will not personally be burning anything there. They contract out the burning. When I took my initial tour of the place, we were talking about how it really could stand to be burned. Unfortunately it is a complicated area to burn due to the hills, and burn insurance is really expensive since it backs right up to a neighborhood on the north end. I imagine mowing the fire breaks would have to be all manually done because I don't think you could run a tractor in there very easily. There are several invasive plants in this part of WI that also get a big boost after burning, so it's always a trade-off. The DNR burns lots of the local state forest land to maintain some bigger sections of prairie and save the few remaining oak savannas.
 

pith helmet

Well-known member
I just pulled up a topo/aerial...that would be a complicated burn. Great work you are doing. Good luck with it.
 

slowlane

Observer
I've been busy out at Eagle Center Prairie this week. I pulled out about 5 trash bags full of garlic mustard from the area I've been working and now about 3/4's of it is garlic mustard-free. Unfortunately I discovered another large infestation of it on the southeast side of the low area. It's probably actually a bigger area than where I have been working. That was a bit of a bummer. I think I should be able to finish what I have been working on in another 4-5 hours. I really have to be aware and careful of where I step, kneel, and set my bucket while I'm working because all among the garlic mustard are the native plants I'm trying to help, and I don't want to crush them. There's not a lot of time left before the garlic mustard goes to seed as it has been flowering for the past two weeks. Once it goes to seed, it's pretty much over for this year's removal. I hope to be able to work some of the new area I found before that happens.

Today I spent some time wandering around after I was done pulling to see what was blooming. All spring and summer long there's always something new. The Hoary Puccoon is blossoming on all three hills and the Prairie Smoke looks like it will go soon as well. There is some Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing down in the area where I have been pulling the garlic mustard. That is fairly uncommon to find around here. There is a big area of Wood Betony near and under a smooth sumac stand. Compass plant is just beginning to grow on the south slope of the big hill. The most exciting find was a group of Prairie Trillium growing under a huge old bur oak at the north edge of the site. I have never seen that anywhere before. This is what I'm really coming to love about Eagle Center Prairie. Even though it's small, there is so much neat stuff there. Also saw a Baltimore Oriole male and female, a Woodcock, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes which seem to be frequenting the area as I saw them last time too.

Hoary Puccoon.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit.


Prairie Trillium. I've never seen this anywhere before.


Wood Betony.


The pair of Sandhill Cranes.
 

slowlane

Observer
Nice. I've seen white flowered trilliums here and there in the Kettle Moraine State Forest but this one was new to me. Unfortunately our place is pretty much just a showcase of the invasive species of Wisconsin.
 
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