Earth Week 2023: Biodiversity in decline, Wisconsin regions crucial for conservation efforts
Every living thing in our complex ecosystems is critical as they comprise the biodiversity that sustains our lives.
But we humans have been tampering with the natural world for centuries.
We’ve paved our cities and managed rural landscapes, crowding out species from the smallest to largest plants and animals — the biodiversity that sustains our planet’s life, including ours.
Earth Week 2023 kicks off with an exploration of regions in Wisconsin that are key to conserve what’s driving decline and what’s being done to reduce loss.
There was still snow on the ground as Peter Duerkop’s boots crunched along the Scuppnernong Springs Nature Trail within the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
“It’s on the northern edge of the Scuppernong River habitat area, which is touted to be the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi,” Duerkop says.
It’s a 40-minute drive west and a jog south of downtown Milwaukee.
Duerkop stewards Wisconsin’s southeast region for the DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation. He says the Scuppernong’s 2,000 -plus acres hold a complex mix of habitat types. They provide food for migrating birds who stop and refuel, along with those that hang around to breed.
“From emergent marsh to different types of prairies and oak openings. It really is an important spot for different plants and wildlife,” Duerkop says.
Would Scuppernong's landscape be considered an island of biodiversity?
“I think pretty much all native places in southeast Wisconsin are kind of islands, the way that the landscape has been built up and developed — whether it’s not just housing, but turned into agriculture,” Duerkop explains. “So, the South Kettle Moraine unit is part of a conservation opportunity area, just because it’s a large landscape that contains a lot of different community types that are in some cases globally imperiled and they house so many species.”
Duerkop is one of nine bureau ecologists scattered throughout the state. He says each has “conservation responsibilities" to certain species.
"Take the oak opening, also known as oak savanna; those only occur in sort of a unique transition zone between the western prairies and eastern forests. And we're on the northern edge of that," Duerkop explains. "And on the whole planet, there's very few places where oak savanna exists. And so the bulk of that northern North America oak savannah type is here in Wisconsin."
There are more critical areas on the bureau's conservation list, including "The Northern Highland kettle lakes — it's the highest density of glacial kettle lakes in the world that we know of, or that I know of. Pine barren communities that occur in central and northwestern Wisconsin," Duerkop adds, "Also just very unique systems that don't really occur anywhere else."
Duerkop says countless species depend on and contribute to those ecosystems.
“And that’s the whole thing with biodiversity, we know a lot of what it can do for us: it provides soil building, flood mitigation, pollination … There’s a tons of services we know it provides but there’s also a lot that we don’t know,” Duerkop says.
Of course, Duerkop and his fellow bureau ecologists aren’t in this battle to save biodiversity alone. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy are working to protect and conserve more land.
About five hours north where Wisconsin meets Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Deputy state director Matt Dallman drives into a strategic parcel. It borders Tenderfoot Lake in Vilas County.
"If you go north about 4 miles, it's Michigan and that's the Ottawa National Forest, and if you go south, it's the 228,000 acre Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, and what we're trying to do is think about species corridors and connections for bobcats, and wolves and deer and moose to be able to move from a large tract of land to another," Dallman explains. "We're working with private landowners in this area to do conservation easements of acquisitions so that we can piece together a land bridge between public ownership."
Dallman says a portion of the Tenderfoot Forest Reserve is extra special. The family that had owned the 970-acre woodland since the 1800s never touched over half of that acreage. Old growth trees: oak, hemlock, basswood, and yellow birch tower above us.
“That’s a yellow birch right in front of us — that’s probably pushing 250-300 years old,” Dallman says.
Younger smooth-barked trees are valuable, but Dallman says age-worn trees represent even greater biodiversity.
"A nuthatch that's looking for a meal, the birch tree, a small one, doesn't hold a lot of habitat for insects, but when you see these trees that are very large, you have a lot of homes for the insects, they need to feed on and survive at this time of year," Dallman says.
This site is rare. But Dallman says ensuring that Wisconsin conserves key regions of the state will be critical to biodiversity and the state’s resilience in general.
The Nature Conservancy teamed up with scientist to map strategic landscapes across the United States. Together they came up with the Resilient and Connected lands Mapping Tool to highlight key habitats in landscapes that are connected.
“The mapping has identified those places we know there’s existing biodiversity, we know the landscape has some unique niches where they can move and then it’s connected, so that they can actually move and not run into a barrier,” Dallman says.
Dallman says the mapping identified about 30% of Wisconsin. That includes the Kettle Moraine where we met ecologist Peter Doerkop. Other areas include wetland systems connected to Lake Michigan and forested regions in the north.
“And that map has created a foundational roadmap for us to direct conservation activity,” Dallman says.
Stanley Temple says The Nature Conservancy took the lead in developing its mapping tool.
Temple is a UW- Madison Professor Emeritus in Conservation in the Forest and Wildlife Ecology Department. The position was first held by conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold.
Temple, a respected scientist, says the need for biodiversity could not be more urgent.
"I've lived long enough that I've seen really troubling changes both politically and perhaps socially as well as environmentally. What I've tragically [seen], during my career and interacting with politicians pretty regularly, has been this steady divide happening where the environment become a highly partisan issue," Temple says.
Yet Temple remains hopeful.
“The hope I experience is that maybe we’ve produced a generation of people who will, in time, make some of the changes in behavior that will preserve biological diversity. We’re seeing hopeful signs,” Temple says.