Conservation planning for two of Wisconsin's most treasured landscapes: the Baraboo Hills and the Northwest pine barrens

Several large areas in Wisconsin still maintain large blocks of contiguous forest that provide habitat for many important wildlife species. Two such sites that are well-loved by residents and rich in biodiversity are the Baraboo hills in southwestern Wisconsin and the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. Sarah 's project focuses on conservation planning in these landscapes, with the goal of helping to focus actions to maintain functioning ecosystems and critical wildlife habitat into the future in high-conservation value areas that are coming under increasing human pressures.

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Open-canopied pine barrens managed to provide sharp-tailed grouse habitat. The Northwest Sands is perhaps our best opportunity in Wisconsin for restoring and managing pine and oak barrens on a landscape scale. Photo by Eric Epstein, Wisconsin DNR.
Sarah Carter has worked on several projects to preserve, protect and manage Wisconsin's wildlife and natural resources as a biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She is now beginning a PhD project focusing on conservation planning in Wisconsin, with the goal of helping to focus actions to maintain functioning landscapes and critical wildlife habitat in several Wisconsin landscapes.

Sarah's study sites are well-known and loved areas in Wisconsin, where Leopold inspired legions with such books as 'A Sand County Almanac'. The Baraboo Hills represent the largest remaining intact block of southern upland forest, dominated by oak, hickory and sugar maple. This landscape is largely in private ownership and is under heavy pressure from housing development associated with nearby Madison. The northwest Wisconsin pine barrens is a unique landscape characterized by a mixture of open barrens, savannas and closed canopy forests, all maintained historically by frequent fires. Currently the area is dominated by pine forests with fewer open barrens areas. This means less habitat for rare species which rely on barrens such as sharp-tailed grouse and Karner blue butterflies.

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Karner blue butterflies, a federally endangered species that relies on barrens habitats (photo by Gregor Schuurman, Wisconsin DNR).
The core of Sarah's project is modeling habitat needs for a suite of wildlife species in each landscape. The wildlife species will be chosen from Wisconsin's list of 'Species of Greatest Conservation Need.' Together, the species chosen will represent the diversity and complexity of habitats within the landscape. The resulting habitat models will be combined with econometric land use models to identify parcels that are both critical for maintaining viable wildlife populations and are at most risk of transitioning to an alternate land use (e.g, residential) if conservation action is not taken. A component of Sarah's project will also be to update land cover information for the NW Sands, allowing us to identify sites (particularly those on private lands) containing high-quality or restorable barrens. This will help to identify future conservation opportunities in the landscape, focusing on those that can complement habitat on existing public properties.

The project will thus provide a means for evaluating how well past management and conservation efforts have focused on areas that are both critical for wildlife and magnets for human development (i.e. among the most urgently in need of conservation attention). It will also provide a road map for future activities of conservation organizations, land managers, and government agencies in Wisconsin, helping to inform and prioritize conservation actions seeking to maintain functioning ecosystems and protect habitat for rare wildlife into the future.

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