PORTAGE COUNTY, Wis. – The Buena Vista Wildlife Area is home to the greatest concentration of greater prairie chickens in Wisconsin. And it’s one of the most extensive grasslands east of the Mississippi River. Encompassing a total of 12,700 acres in southwestern Portage County, it’s managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Before the area was drained in the early 1900s for agricultural use it was dominated by the only trees that could survive the tannic and acidic conditions – tamarack and black spruce. There are currently 110 acres of drainage ditches on the property to maintain it.

William Kolodziej of Sandstone Ranch brings his herd of Red Angus cow-calf pairs every spring after calving season to rotationally graze 320 acres of the Buena Vista Wildlife Area. The plan is to use Kolodziej’s beef herd to maintain the DNR management goals of reducing chemical and mechanical treatments in managing the grassland. The project has been five years in the making.

Kolodziej is no stranger to the principles of rotational grazing. The former collegiate wrestler and high school wrestling coach splits his time between two jobs. He’s the Marathon County Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department’s grazing specialist. And he’s the owner-operator of Sandstone Ranch in the town of Dewey, 5 miles north of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. There he maintains a 65-cow herd of Red Angus.

DNR wildlife technician Erin Grossman contacted Kolodziej in 2013 about beginning a rational-grazing project on state lands. Kolodziej is quick to say how instrumental Grossman has been in making rotational grazing a part of the DNR management scheme. Grossman has since moved on; Zach Knab will be taking over to work alongside Kolodziej, along with wildlife biologist Lesa Kardash who has been with the project since its inception.

Mark Renz, a University of Wisconsin agroecology professor, in 2016 engaged five graduate students to measure the effects the grazing project was having on plant populations in the study area. Laura Judge is currently a graduate student in the agroecology program. Her interest is in fostering farms as productive low-input ecosystems through the use of rotational grazing.

Judge is measuring changes in plant communities in the area grazed by Kolodziej’s beef herd. In one plot she used electric fence to keep the cattle out of a section. During a few years’ time the area became dominated by quaking aspen trees. Next to that spot where the cattle were allowed access during their grazing rotations, only a few aspen remained. The cattle pressure had eliminated the aspen through physical damage by exerting force on the trees from rubbing, eventually breaking them. That allowed light to enter the area and grasses to proliferate during the timed grazing events.

Ann and Scott Swengel are independent scientists who conduct surveys for a broad range of projects. They’ve been surveying since 2014 the site where the Kolodziej herd has been grazing at Buena Vista.

“It has been an up year for butterflies in general, but Buena Vista is the top of the line for numbers on a totally different level than other sites we’ve seen,” Ann Swengel said. “Recently grazed patches along Lake Road, Coolidge Road and Buena Vista Road in the marsh had super high numbers of both monarch and Aphrodite Fritillary (butterflies) in this summer’s surveys. Aphrodite is a large desirable grassland species declining in nearly all prairie preserves.”

She said the couple’s three-best daily total counts of monarchs and two-best counts of Aphrodite butterflies occurred during 2018 and 2019 at Buena Vista – and that’s out of 32 years of study at hundreds of sites as well as more than 20,000 butterfly surveys.

“We’ve also had two good years in a row for the state-listed prairie-specialist butterfly, regal fritillary, which has an outlier population at Buena – 55 miles from any other known population,” she said. “Regals live in these current and especially just-finished grazing patches. And the even rarer Gray Copper has its only stronghold that we know of anywhere at Buena Vista, with 50 to 200 sightings per year.”

Kolodziej said he’s noticed an increase in songbirds, prairie chickens and butterflies since the project’s beginning. He’s also seeing his forage base improve.

“This year’s grass is thicker than ever and the cattle are thriving,” he said.

He said he’s happy with the move to permanent high-tensile-wire paddock divisions as well as a solar fence charger in a remote location of the project. Multiple water tanks have been added.

“No more winding a quarter-mile of polywire, carrying 25 step-in posts and dragging 500-gallon water tanks along with fresh 12-volt batteries for the fencer,” he said.

The grazing project at the Buena Vista Wildlife Area has tremendous long-term potential.

“The project represents a unique combination of taking non-productive land and utilizing it for agriculture while improving wildlife habitat,” he said. “Managed grazing makes it possible.”

Visit dnr.wi.gov and search for "Buena Vista" for more information.

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Greg Galbraith and his wife, Wendy, sold their dairy farm after 30 years of grazing cattle. He now has 20 acres of his grandfather’s original farm with a sugar bush and cabin. From there he writes about the evolving rural landscape. Visit www.poeticfarmer.com for more information.