Pioneering at Plum Creek Conservation Area

field sparrows at Plum Creek Conservation Area
Climate Change
Dave Skoloda

Pioneers in climate adaptation – that’s how Amy Staffen described the team assembled by Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC) to develop a management strategy for the 1,600-acre Plum Creek Conservation Area it acquired last year.  

Staffen is the chair of the Plants and Natural Communities Working Group – a part of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts or WICCI. She worked with the 16-member team at a two-day workshop in July where she stressed the importance of working through the Adaptation Workbook created by the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. The team includes MVC staff and representatives of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Wisconsin Wetlands Association and the Savanna Institute. 

A DNR conservation biologist, Staffen believes the “pioneers” must approach their task with their “eyes wide open” to all the complexities of preparing the land to cope with the changing climate. Completing the workbook is what will help them be successful, she noted. Michael Reitz, MVC’s restoration ecologist, is tasked with leading the management planning for this cattle farm and forest property, which has nearly five miles of frontage along the Kickapoo River and Plum Creek.  He has produced a 23-page, 7,000-word summary of the workshop packed with the land issues and climate vulnerabilities and questions that must be answered – issues including the need for immediate action on erosion control, the role that agriculture will play in the management plan, and the issues surrounding biodiversity enhancement in the changing climate. 

Planning for the challenges ahead 

The planning team prioritized the need for management that expands and enhances existing rare bird habitat and reduces habitat fragmentation on the land which is at the heart of an Important Bird Area. Questions that remain to be addressed in the management plan include 

• How will the changing climate make invasive plant species such more aggressive? 

• Should the floodplain around Plum Creek be restructured to allow it to flood into its bottomland? 

• How will management of the Plum Creek Conservation Area complement that of the neighboring Kickapoo Wildlife Area and the Kickapoo Wild Woods State Natural Area? 

• What practices will make the landscape more resilient to more intense rainfall and infestations of disease and invasive species that are expected as part of the changing climate? 

• How can livestock be incorporated as a management tool to increase native biodiversity? 

One of the early actions in the restoration plan will be to transition row crops toward permanent plant cover, affecting some 281 acres of mostly ridgetop fields that are now rented to a neighboring farmer. Applications for conservation incentive programs and grants are currently being explored to secure funds for this project, which will slow rainwater runoff and help to prevent erosion. 

MVC Executive Director Carol Abrahamzon noted that Plum Creek “is a many-decades-long project,” and added, “These things take time.”  She cited the importance of  the expertise provided by the “great partners” in this project, and said that taking a thoughtful, deliberate approach requires being given the time to consider all the options. As Amy Staffen emphasized throughout the climate workshop, “Habitat management planning is an iterative process!”

Conservation innovation made possible by you. 

Thank you! There is a natural tendency to look at land management and do what has been done in the past, since that  is what we are comfortable with. The Plum Creek Conservation Area provides an opportunity to explore  options to do better conservation by working with the agricultural community and demonstrating what can be done for the native ecosystems that took thousands of years to form. Your support makes this possible. 

Above: Field sparrows are among the migrating bird species at Plum Creek Conservation Area. Photo by Bruce Bartel.