VERNON COUNTY - The meeting of the West Fork Watershed Council on Sunday, Sept. 9, attracted almost 50 participants from the watershed. The event was held at the farm of Tom Lukens and Pam Saunders, Nature Nooks Retreat. Earlier in the day, the nearby Liberty Bar had held a flood relief benefit featuring free food with a goodwill donation.
The efforts began back in 2017, in the aftermath of the storms and floods in Sep-tember of 2016. The focus of the group is to promote conservation land use in the watershed. The watershed, home to at least nine flood control dams, played a major role in the recent historic flooding in the Kickapoo Valley.
Two of the dams in the watershed, Jersey Valley and Mlsna, breached in the extreme rainfall events of Monday, Aug. 27 through Tuesday, Aug. 28. The full water impoundments spilled into the West Fork of the Kickapoo River, causing flood levels to go from large to historic.
The group’s efforts differ slightly from that of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, because they are not primarily farmer-led.
“The majority of the landowners in the watershed are not farmers,” major organizer Tom Lukens explained. “While our outreach does include farmers in the watershed, most of the interest to date has come from recreational-use landowners.”
Tyler Dvorak is the Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator for Southwest Badger RC&D (BRC&D) Council. He manages monitoring and control of aquatic invasive species (AIS) in a five-county area, which includes Crawford and Vernon counties.
“Badger RC&D used to be part of USDA NRCS and the WDNR,” Dornak explained. “Now, we are a non-profit that fills in the gaps that the bigger NRCS and DNR programs don’t cover.”
BRC&D has selected the West Branch of the Pecatonica River and the West Fork of the Kickapoo River as target watersheds through stakeholder input. The management plans for the two watersheds were written to provide both a scope of the existing problem and a strategic plan for future progress.
“These plans provide a road map for controlling and preventing the spread of AIS in these target watersheds,” said Tyler Dvorak, Stewardship Specialist with Southwest Badger RC&D. “They will help raise awareness, and provide direction for landowners to limit the economic damage caused by AIS.”
The management plans discuss AIS in these watersheds using a multi-pronged approach. They talk about the AIS of highest concern in the watersheds, including their potential impacts and distribution. They provide a blueprint for education and outreach activities to help limit their spread. Also included are procedures for monitoring AIS in the watersheds, and ideas for controlling populations. The management plans wrap up with proposals for evaluating progress and future improvements.
A copy of the plan can be downloaded at https://www.swbadger.org/invasives.html
In his talk, Dvorak emphasized the species of particular interest as Japanese Knotweed, Japanese Hops, Purple Loosestrife, and the New Zealand Mudsnail.
Japanese hops is considered a species of highest priority within the West Fork watershed. The fact that this species, once well-established within a watershed, has the ability to limit recreational access, degrade the aesthetic quality of an area, and impact potential agricultural use and productivity of certain sites, make it one of increased economic concern.
The plant is an herbaceous member of the Hemp family; shallow-rooted, rapidly growing annual or short-lived perennial with a trailing or twining vine. The leaves are simple, opposite and lobed; leaves that are dark green, 2-5" in length, generally roughly-textured and toothed with 5-9 lobes. The plant’s stems are covered with coarse, downward-pointing prickles capable of causing skin irritation. Vines can reach lengths of up to 35 feet and climb to a height of 10-15 feet.
Japanese hops is known to establish itself along forest edges or within areas where disturbance creates adequate gaps in the over story. It is often successful at establishing along watercourses, ditches, road right-of-ways, and open fields or other areas with adequate soil moisture and full sun to partial shade. Japanese hops does not appear capable of tolerating full shade or complete canopy coverage. The plant often forms thick mats of overlapping vines, and is capable of overtopping and killing seedlings and other vegetation.
Japanese hops reproduces by seed, which are typically distributed by water or wind, and inadvertently by animals or humans. The seeds may remain viable in the soil for up to three years, and observations suggest that regeneration rates can result in seedling densities of over one-thousand/acre.
Seeds are often carried downstream during periods of higher flow, allowing them to effectively spread themselves along exposed stream banks. When occurring in agricultural areas, the flowering vines can frequently be inadvertently incorporated into bales.
Japanese knotweed is a bamboo-like, semi-woody perennial native to eastern Asia. Leaves are simple and alternate (4-6” in length), and stems are hollow and segmented, with characteristic swollen nodes, which are often reddish in color and covered by a residual papery sheath. The plant can form dense stands that range in height from 6 to 10 feet and are capable of displacing native vegetation and limiting habitat availability for wildlife.
Male and female flowers occur on separate plants and flowers are small (0.125” in width), and cream-colored. This species typically spreads by means of its rhizomes and through fragmentation of its rhizomes and stems.
It is not uncommon for it to spread following flood events, when segments of the plants are washed downstream. Observations also suggest this species is easily transported in fill material or on construction equipment. Japanese knotweed prefers semi-shaded sites along streams, rivers, or wetlands; however, it is often observed along woodlot edges and distributed near outbuildings or abandoned structures.
Due to its semi-woody nature, Japanese knotweed stems often remain conspicuously upright and persist through winter and into spring.
Purple loosestrife is a bushy perennial wetland plant that was introduced to the U.S. from Europe in the early 1800s. Its introduction was likely a combined result of intentional ornamental plantings and unintentional release from ballast water from cargo vessels. Plant height is variable and ranges from 3-7 feet or more.
Purple loosestrife often completely displaces native vegetation in wetlands and in near-shore areas along lakes. It has been shown to limit the reproductive capacity of native plants by creating competition for pollinator services.
Like Japanese hops and Japanese knotweed, by outcompeting native species, purple loosestrife creates stands that not only create unfavorable physical habitat conditions for avian and amphibian species, but also affects aquatic food webs and ecosystem processes.
New Zealand mudsnails
New Zealand Mudsnails are prolific primary consumers, grazing on plant/animal detritus, periphyton, and benthic sediments; due to presence of an operculum, snails are able to remain out of water for a considerable amount of time (several weeks under optimal humidity and damp substrate). First reported from Wisconsin's inland waters in 2013 from benthic samples collected in 2012 from Black Earth Creek in Dane County; in 2016 it was detected in a second Dane County stream, Badger Mill Creek.
New Zealand mud snails tolerate a wide range of habitats, including freshwater rivers, streams and lakes and brackish estuaries. Populations tend to do best in water bodies with relatively constant temperature and flow, but are highly adaptable. Under favorable habitat conditions, densities of up to 750,000 snails per square meter have been observed.
In the U.S., introduced populations of New Zealand mud snails are mostly self-cloning females; females give birth to live young with developing embryos in their reproductive system; a single snail can give rise to an entire population in the course of a year. Due to their small size, this species is easily transported as ‘hitch-hikers’ on recreational gear and equipment used in-water.
While New Zealand mudsnails have been observed to be consumed by rainbow trout, studies suggest they offer little to no nutritional value and are capable of passing through the gut of a fish unharmed, potentially aiding in their dispersal. They are capable of disrupting food chains in systems where they are established, dominating both carbon and nitrogen cycling.
Conservation at scale
Craig Thompson, with the WDNR spoke to the group about bird habitat protection. Thompson said that the planet is in the middle of what some have called the ‘sixth extinction.”
“We are seeing catastrophic declines in bird populations worldwide,” Thompson said. “We now have one billion fewer birds than we did in the 1960s.”
Thomspon said the primary reasons for the decline are habitat destruction, and habitat fragmentation.
“Sixty percent of America is privately owned,” Thompson explained. “That’s why government programs can only accomplish so much on public lands. To make a serious dent in the problem, we have to enlist the support of private landowners.”
Thompson explained that 80 percent of forest bird species live on private lands.
“The goal of private and government conservationists is to foster cooperation to achieve ‘Conservation at Scale.’
The Driftless, Thompson explained, is Wisconsin’s most bio-diverse region. For birds that migrate, when they reach North America, they basically make migratory hops between the Gulf, the Ozarks and the Driftless.
“In order to sustain migration, we need to expand habitat, and create more connections between protected habitat,” Thompson said. “The Cerulean Warbler, for instance, is on the verge of being listed as an endangered species. The Driftless Region is a hot spot for this species.”