On August 30th, The Prairie Enthusiasts achieved a long term goal of both TPE and The Nature Conservancy – the acquisition and permanent protection of two prairie remnants of distinction owned by Paul and Judy Swenson of Arena, WI.
Situated in the lower Mill Creek valley and along County Highway H south of Arena, in Iowa County, WI, the two remnants are part of a larger collection of much-studied natural areas. The sites have gone by various names; the St. John's Complex (named after the nearby Catholic Church), Swenson Hill Prairie (the larger of the two) and Shooting Star Prairie, which is shared by a neighbor. The remnants have been the focus of protection efforts since the early 1990's when TNC was the lead and TPE was still a small organization. At least one site within the larger complex was part of John Curtis's inventory of natural areas in the 1950's.
The remnants have a high and evenly-distributed diversity of classic dry prairie plants. In spring there is a flush of ephemeral plants like yellow-star grass and violet wood sorrel, and in mid-summer, a huge show of leadplant, prairie coreopsis and butterfly weed. Among the rarer plants found on the two sites are Hill's thistle and pomme-de-prairie (Psoralea esculenta). The sites are also known for harboring rare insects, especially the State Endangered leafhopper Attenuipyga vanduzeei.
TPE has been active on these sites since 2002 when US Fish and Wildlife Service funding helped clear both sites of encroaching brush, especially eastern red cedar. At least four TPE field trips have visited the sites since then. Volunteer crews have applied infrequent fire to the larger of the two remnants to control returning brush, but there is still much work to be done. Now that TPE owns the prairies in fee title, the stewardship work can pick up pace once again.
Funding for this acquisition was made possible by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. TPE Executive Director Chis Kirkpatrick coordinated the deal and made sure all the pieces were in their proper place.
Special thanks go to Paul and Judy Swenson, who have always shown an interest in the natural areas of their dairy farm, for allowing TPE access over the years, and for patience in the acquisition process. A big thank you also goes to Amy Staffen, as she worked with me in maintaining ties with the Swensons through the past decades, thus keeping the project alive.