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Great Lakes Article:

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, Kilian said.

"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 possible."

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 Reserve Program.

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 and wildflowers.

The site's natural features

Significant natural features at the Zeloski property include:

  • 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 Kilian.

  • 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 said.

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.

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