VIROQUA - Rounding out an action-packed year, Valley Stewardship Network had a very busy second week of November. The group hosted the second in their ‘Conservation on Tap’ series on Wednesday, Nov. 14, and then held their annual member meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15.
The next ‘Conservation on Tap’ education event will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 12 from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Rooted Spoon on Main Street in Viroqua. The topic of that event will be ‘Half a Billion Years of Driftless History’ with Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, Professor Emeritus of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago.
At the most recent ‘Conservation on Tap’ event held at the Rooted Spoon in Viroqua, Dr. Delaney made a presentation about the ‘Prehistoric Ecology of the Driftless Area’ to about 75 participants.
Delaney explained that the ‘Driftless Region’ is an area in Southeast Minnesota, Southwest Wisconsin, Northwest Iowa and Northeast Illinois that was never covered by the glacier that covered much of Canada and the northeastern part of the United States in the Pleistocene Age.
This means that some of the plant and animal life – flora and fauna – in the area is unique in reflecting the species present prior to glaciation. Some species that were wiped out in other areas continued to flourish in the Driftless Area.
Prior to European settlement, the area was covered in Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna. These were maintained by fire, either from natural causes such as lightning or by humans intentionally burning in order to attract game and allow for small-scale early agriculture.
When Europeans arrived and settled in the area in numbers, then efforts to discourage fires were put in place. By 1884, an account of changing land characteristics was recorded in Fillmore County, Minnesota, which described the “woodland invasion” of areas formerly covered in prairie and savanna.
“The area covered by native timber is steadily increasing. A large proportion of the county is covered with bushes, which are composed of hazel, aspen, two kinds of oak, and where these are wanting, a species of low willow, which seems to come up after the prairie fires are stopped. After the willow, hazel and oak and aspen gradually come in, and in time convert the original prairie to a bushy or timbered region. Over some large tracts in the county, this process is going on. There are thousands of acres of young native timber, not exceeding five or six inches in diameter, due to this gradual change since the suppression of the prairie fires.”
As Delaney explained, once fire is removed from the system, there is a natural progression in development of plant life. First annual plants will move in, followed by perennial plants and grasses, followed by shrubs, the softwood trees and pines, and finally hardwood trees.
There has been an alarming trend in the most recent epoch – the Anthropocene – the period since 1950, of catastrophic losses in the biodiversity of the planet. Particularly hard hit are the pollinators – the birds and the bees – which evolved along with tallgrass prairie plant species. Declines in these pollinator species, so important to agriculture, have been impacted by loss of prairie and generally shrinking habitat areas.
Delaney made the point that inclusion of prairie plantings in the agricultural landscape produces multiple ecosystem benefits, such as: improving water quality; enhancing soil health; streambank stabilization; increasing availability of forage; wildlife habitat; pollinator resources; and carbon sequestration.
For this reason, and because the Driftless Region is one of the most significant ‘biodiversity hotspots’ left in the United States, groups like VSN are working to promote preservation of habitat and reintroduce prairie into the area’s agricultural systems.
At another event in Viroqua just a day later, members of VSN gathered to hear about the group’s accomplishments in 2018 and plans for 2019.
The group has a new employee and a new board member. Dave Krier joined VSN’s staff after retiring from a 30-year career in the aerospace industry. Krier will serve as the ‘Water Quality and Citizen Science Coordinator’ for the group.
Their new board member is Debra Behrens, who specializes in helping nonprofits with fundraising and growing community support. Behrens comes with 20 years of experience, and works as Chief Advancement Officer at Aeon, an affordable housing non-profit in the Twin Cities.
VSN executive director Shelly Brenneman also reported that the group had updated their mission statement as follows:
‘Since 2000, in the Kickapoo and neighboring watersheds, Valley Stewardship Network protects our land and waters through research, education and community empowerment.’
Programs that will continue into 2019 include water quality research; citizen science; farming with prairies; watershed councils; soil and wildlife surveys; stewardship planning; youth and community education; and GIS mapping and modeling. New programs for 2019 will include watershed planning and an ‘Important Bird Area Council.’
The group receives funding through member contributions, and by grants provided by The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Wallace Center at Winrock International, Fishers & Farmers Partnership for the Upper Mississippi River Basin, North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources River Planning Program.
Matt Emslie, VSN Landowner Outreach Coordinator, is currently working with two functioning and two forming watershed associations, composed of farmers and landowners.
Perhaps best known to the readers of this paper, Emslie and VSN have been instrumental in assisting the farmers of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council in their many successful activities in 2018. Along with the Vernon County Land Conservation Department, VSN has helped the group successfully apply for a DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Grant in the amount of $40,000 for 2019. This funding, pending final confirmation from DATCP, will allow the group to expand upon their successes from 2018.
Another existing group is the West Fork Watershed Council, which is composed of more recreational landowners than farmers. The group has held several educational meetings in 2018 and plans to continue into 2019.
Watershed councils that are in the process of forming with help from VSN include the South Fork of the Bad Axe, and an Upper Kickapoo Grazing Lands Council.