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Sandhill settlement era

Wildlife and native habitats of this region have endured incredible changes during the past 150 years. Prior to settlement, wildfires were a dominant force influencing the composition and abundance of plant and animal life throughout Wisconsin. Pioneering settlers found expansive sedge and tamarack marshes and uplands of white pine, red pine and oaks. They also found an abundance of deer, grouse, bears, wolves and bobcats. Great flocks of passenger pigeons were nested in our area during the 1870s.

Settlers brought many changes to the land The region was extensively logged between the 1850s and 1880s. Farmers moved in and rapidly settled uplands, burning area marshes. Between the 1880s and 1920s, these pioneers ditched and drained area marshes and plowed up and burned over native prairies and forested areas. This habitat alteration caused the decline of many forms of native wildlife; the last wild passenger pigeon was shot near Sandhill in 1899. By the 1920s, very few deer remained in Wood County. One year, a local hunter reported walking all day throughout Sandhill and the surrounding lands without seeing even a single deer track. The last major wildfire swept through this area in 1930, burning 500 square miles of central Wisconsin and creating conditions favoring sun-loving trees such as aspen, jack pine and oaks as well as the grasses and shrubs of the plentiful wetlands.

By the 1930s, the combination of poor, waterlogged soil, accumulated farm debt, high drainage district taxes and the Great Depression drove even the most persistent farmers from the land. The only real survivors of this era were those who prospected in cranberries.

These massive habitat alterations were actually beneficial to some kinds of wildlife. The new farmlands and adjacent wild, open spaces favored prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse and other prairie wildlife for a time. Prairie chickens were particularly plentiful in this region until the late 1930s. Ruffed grouse, squirrel and deer numbers gradually increased as did many other kinds of forest wildlife, responding to the new lush forest growth that sprouted up from the ashes of the fire and among the abandoned farmsteads that dotted the landscape.