Jumping in to preserve a marsh
Pheasants Forever hopes to save Jefferson
County area for
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Town of Jefferson - A Wisconsin conservation group's
most ambitious land acquisition would preserve for the
public a unique array of natural and archaeological resources
- from the largest remaining tamarack forest in southern
Wisconsin to an ancient American Indian effigy mound.
The Wisconsin Chapter of Pheasants Forever has proposed
buying a 41/2-mile-long string of diverse wetlands in
central Jefferson County that also is home to great egrets,
which are threatened with extinction in Wisconsin, and
a rare flower, the showy lady's slipper orchid.
Turkey vultures and hawks soar skyward on air currents
rising along a hill on the east edge of the wetlands.
Farmer Dennis Zeloski has agreed to sell 2,736.4 acres
to Pheasants Forever, a group dedicated to improving wildlife
habitat, if it receives $3.5 million in federal and state
conservation funds that it has requested to buy the land.
The property is both north and south of Highway Y in the
towns of Jefferson and Hebron, about two miles east of
the city of Jefferson.
"This single purchase is going to make a huge impact
on the amount of wildlife habitat open to the public,"
said Jeff Gaska, Pheasants Forever wildlife biologist
for Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Group's biggest project
If the group succeeds, the entire property would be added
to an existing 392.4-acre public hunting ground off Bear
Hole Road. The resulting 3,129-acre parcel would be named
Jefferson Marsh Wildlife and Natural Area and opened to
public wildlife watching, hunting, trapping and hiking.
"It is by far the largest project undertaken by Pheasants
Forever in Wisconsin," Gaska said. "Our goal is to promote
habitat development for pheasants, but we recognize that
numerous other species will benefit."
Pheasants would roam the area alongside turkeys, migratory
waterfowl and songbirds, and sandhill cranes. The parade
of mammals known to live there includes badger, beaver,
otter, mink, coyote, red fox and deer.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had targeted this
area of Jefferson County for public land purchases to
support its waterfowl production goals for the nation,
said Charlie Kilian, wildlife biologist with the state
Department of Natural Resources in Lake Mills. The Zeloski
property is in the center of a Jefferson County area identified
as critical wetlands for boosting goose and duck populations,
"Pheasants Forever is taking hold of an unusual opportunity
to buy such a large property," he said. "And the group
intends to turn it all back to as close to natural as
As the first step in the overall purchase, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service
would pay Zeloski $1.9 million for a conservation easement
on 1,734 acres.
The easement payment, which would equal 75% of the land
value, already has been approved under the federal Wetland
Pheasants Forever would then buy the 1,734 acres from
Zeloski for its reduced value, and acquire the remaining
1,002 acres at full price. The group has requested a total
of $1.6 million from the state Knowles-Nelson Stewardship
Fund to close the deal.
Biggest private grant request
This would be the largest purchase ever made by a private
conservation group using Stewardship grant funds, said
DNR grant specialist Stefanie Brouwer. The grant needs
the approval of both the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee
and Gov. Scott McCallum.
Zeloski Farms of Lake Mills grows mint, corn, soybeans
and potatoes on about 920 acres on the south end of the
property along Highway Y. Zeloski's father started buying
land here in the 1940s. Zeloski also owns a mint and vegetable
farm near Lake Mills and a seed potato farm near Eagle
River in Vilas County.
He decided to sell the entire 2,736.4 acres because decade-old
changes in federal wetland laws prohibited him from developing
more of the lowlands on the property for agricultural
use, he said. In addition, the number of trespassers illegally
hunting on the land has increased in recent years, along
with the amount of local property taxes he pays on the
undisturbed wetlands, Zeloski said.
Much of the 920 acres of cropland here is former wetland
that has been drained. It would be restored to its naturally
wet state by disabling about 57,000 feet of drainage tile
lines, the DNR's Kilian said. Upland areas on the fringe
of the restored wetland would be planted with native grasses
The site's natural features
Significant natural features at the Zeloski property
- An 800-acre tamarack swamp. This is the largest stand
of tamarack remaining in southern Wisconsin, said Mark
Martin, a public lands specialist with the DNR. The
forest floor is carpeted in mosses and sedges, a grasslike
plant with triangular stems.
- Nearly 300 acres of high-quality sedge meadow. Sedges
dominate this undisturbed, saturated meadow with peat
and other fertile, organic soils. The rare showy lady's
slipper orchid is found here, Martin said.
Fur trappers working in this area prior to European settlement
described the spongy peat wetlands and floating mats of
vegetation in bogs as "the trembling land," said the DNR's
- An island surrounded by a small marsh adjacent to
the sedge meadow. Tall, 100-year-old oaks cover the
10-acre island, hiding a long, narrow mound that winds
for several hundred feet along the shoreline, Martin
The earthen mound probably is a long-tailed panther effigy,
built by American Indians at least 1,000 years ago, according
to state archaeologist Robert Birmingham. The panther
form was one of several long-tailed spirit animals represented
by mounds found throughout Wisconsin.
Birmingham wants to study the mound more closely before
he officially lists it as an effigy, however.
If Pheasants Forever successfully acquires the Zeloski
property, the tamarack swamp, sedge meadow and island
would become part of a 1,100-acre natural area, a designation
given to refuges of native plants. The primary management
goal would be to prevent invasion of purple loosestrife
and other nuisance weeds.
The remaining 1,636 acres in the proposed sale would
be managed primarily for wildlife production and recreation.