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Central Wisconsin Grassland Conservation Area

The Central Wisconsin Grassland Conservation Area (CWGCA) stretches in an "S" shape from southeastern Taylor County, through parts of Clark and Marathon counties, between Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids and south to northeastern Adams County. It includes the Leola Marsh Wildlife Area, Buena Vista Marsh Wildlife Area, Paul J. Olson Wildlife Area and George W. Mead Wildlife Area.

Within this area, the department proposes to protect, primarily through acquisition and easements, up to 15,000 acres of additional grassland habitat.

Much of the area within the CWGCA remains in agricultural production, with shifts over the last 40 years to an increase in row crops (with more and more based on center pivot irrigation) and a decrease in pasture land and small grains. Cranberry beds are being created in several areas. In addition, there has been an increase in forest cover here, in part due to tree planting and also due to natural succession as woody growth becomes established in former farm fields. Rural residential development is spreading through portions of the area, fed by the population growth in Stevens Point, Wausau, Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids.

Due to the size, quality and distribution of the existing public and private grasslands, this area is particularly attractive to a diverse community of grassland birds. The state's largest populations of the greater prairie chicken, short-eared owl and possibly Henslow's sparrow are found here. A great diversity of other declining or rare grassland birds, including sedge wren, Wilson's phalarope, blue-winged teal, bobolink, upland sandpiper, Brewer's blackbird, eastern and western meadowlarks, northern harrier and several rare sparrows (including grasshopper, field and clay-colored) are found locally. In addition, the regal fritillary butterfly, a state-endangered species, is common at Buena Vista Grasslands.

Property History

The CWGCA straddles the boundary between the Central Sand Plains and the Forest Transition ecological landscapes. The southeastern portion falls within the Central Sand Plains and is characterized by flat, sandy soils. Much of this area historically was a mix of marsh, prairie and savanna. In the early 1900s, draining and ditching transformed large areas into the pasture, grass seed fields and cropland. The northern and western portions of the CWGCA have loamier soils, are slightly higher and harbor more topography. As the name implies, the Forest Transition Ecological Landscape marks the beginning of the "northern forest" and historically this area was dominated by maple, hemlock, tamarack and pine. Following logging in the late 1800s, much of the uplands were converted to agriculture, initially in wheat and later in dairy farming.

Management objective

Currently, several state wildlife areas and other protected lands nested within the Central Wisconsin Grassland Conservation Area (CWGCA) are managed to benefit grassland-dependent species, particularly the greater prairie chicken (GPC). Despite the establishment of over 22,000 acres of permanent grassland habitat in this large project area, populations of the GPC and many other grassland-dependent species continue to decline here. Although a combination of factors is likely at work, it is believed that the population declines are primarily related to the loss and fragmentation of critical habitat and the shifting of farming operations to "higher-intensity" practices. In addition, there has been an increase in forest cover in the area, both a function of active planting and passive succession. The overall habitat fragmentation and loss have restricted the movement of GPCs and led to a loss in genetic diversity in the remaining population.

As a result, the primary goal of the Central Wisconsin Grassland Conservation Area is to improve the existing protected lands' ability to harbor viable populations of grassland-dependent species, particularly the GPC. To achieve this goal, the CWGCA's primary objectives are to:

  1. establish more permanent grassland habitat (primarily focused on lands within one mile of active, or recently active, GPC booming grounds); and
  2. maintain a predominantly open, unforested, undeveloped landscape where agriculture is the dominant land use, particularly in areas critical to the life history needs of grassland species.

A secondary goal of the project is to provide a limited amount of low-impact recreation opportunities, primarily wildlife watching and hunting.

Management activities that will be used to maintain a mixed grassland agricultural landscape that minimizes brush and tree encroachment include, planting of native grassland species, planting of cool season grasses and legumes, cropping on a permanent or rotational basis, grazing, prescribed burning, mowing and herbicide application.

Within a grassland landscape, the addition or restoration of wetlands adjacent to grasslands provides critical foraging and nesting habitat for many wetland species. Wetland development and restoration techniques will vary between parcels, groups of parcels and areas within the grassland landscape. Options available will depend on soils, topography and hydrology and include the use of wetland scrapes, diked drainages and ditch plugs.


The following recreational opportunities exist at Central Wisconsin Grasslands Conservation Area:

  • birding;
  • cross-country skiing (no designated trail);
  • hiking (no designated trail);
  • hunting (especially noted for white-tailed deer, turkey and small game);
  • trapping;
  • wild edibles/gathering; and
  • wildlife viewing.

Unique Considerations

The CWGCA received very high rankings in both recreational and conservation value in the Land Legacy Report. Due to the size, quality and distribution of the existing grasslands, DNR's publication Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds [exit DNR] ranked the CWGCA in the top five areas for grassland bird conservation in the state. The state's largest populations of GPC, short-eared owl and regal fritillary butterflies are found here. Other declining or rare grassland birds, including upland sandpiper, eastern and western meadowlarks, northern harrier and several rare sparrows are found locally.


Download [PDF] a map of this area.

If you are interested in exploring this property further, you can access an interactive map.