Sunday, April 17, 2011

Kickapoo Wildlife

This spring, I have been observing an interesting battle of the birds over some prime nesting sites on the ponds located below our house. These ponds were created several years back just for this use – for waterfowl to hang out, feed and nest there. There is a prime nesting site on each of the two ponds and for the past several weeks, some Canadian Geese and some Sand Hill Cranes have been jockeying for position as to who gets to lay their eggs where. Whenever the cranes appear and there usually are three of them – the nesting pair and a now-adult chick from last year – the geese, sometimes one but often two, will always climb to the top of the nests and stand in defiance to the Sand Hill invaders. The cranes seem oblivious to the honks and postures of their Canadian cousins and feed in the marsh grasses next to the ponds. The geese, being the more aggressive of the two species, seem to be winning this battle so far. If only one pair of geese stay on the ponds, then perhaps the cranes will take the other nest, but that has never happened before. There seems to be more than enough room as far as the cranes are concerned, but the geese, being much more territorial, don’t seem to want the cranes anywhere in the immediate neighborhood.

Of course, sixty years ago, none of this dueling birds saga would have been playing out in this spot next to Bear Creek. My father owned this farm at that time, located just to the east of La Farge. He wanted cropland and not wildlife ponds for his dairy farming. He tiled the low-lying fields so the water would drain out of them and corn could be planted there. (I remember his chagrin when I told him of the plans to create the conservation wildlife ponds on his former farm. He could remember how much work and expense it had been to create the drainage systems in his time on the land.) Much of the wetlands in the Kickapoo Valley had disappeared by that era of the mid-twentieth century as farmers drained and tiled their marshes and bogs for more cropland. With fewer ponds and wetlands in the Valley, there were fewer waterfowl as well – reduced habitat meant reduced populations of birds. I’m sure there were geese and ducks in the Kickapoo Valley in 1950, but they were surely not as plentiful as today. As for the Sand Hill Crane, they were nowhere to be seen in the Valley back then.

Most of us who have lived around these parts for a while, can remember exactly when we heard that crazy call of the crane for the first time. Most residents had never heard that strange sound in the Valley until recent times. Perhaps it was fifteen years ago or even ten when the call was first heard, depending on where you lived here in the Valley. The cranes have come to the Kickapoo as their populations increased in central Wisconsin and the habitat of wetlands and croplands increased in this area in recent years. Sixty years ago or a century ago, that call wouldn’t have been heard here in the Kickapoo.

Another ritual of spring on our Bear Creek farm is the strutting of the Tom Turkeys in the field behind our house. The turkey is another recent arrival in the Kickapoo Valley and a species that was nowhere to be seen when I was a kid growing up in La Farge in the 1950s. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources first introduced the wild turkey into the state in 1976. It was an exchange program with the state of Missouri DNR – they received some of our Ruffed Grouse and the Badger State imported some of the Show Me State turkeys. The DNR turkey management program began right here in Vernon County, over in the area around Romance in the western part of the county. In a few years the expanding flock of transplanted gobblers had moved east and found the Kickapoo Valley and multiplied magnificently in their new surroundings. Today, seeing flocks of turkeys feeding in fields and along wood lines is a common sight as one drives the roads of the Valley. When the tom turkeys start puffing up and rattling their feathers, show the bright blues and reds of their neck and head and start strutting their stuff, Kickapoogians know the turkey’s mating season has begun.

The first of the Spring Turkey Seasons starts this week so the woods and fields in these parts will be filled with hunters calling for their big tom. Turkey hunting today is a big economic boost here in the Kickapoo Valley, yet a short thirty years ago, the birds were nowhere to be seen. Over the years, the types of species and their densities can change dramatically.

In January, I watched three coyotes gambol in the snow in the field behind my house. Coyotes are usually heard rather than seen as the 10 o’clock whistle in La Farge always sets off the howling of the creatures each night. On this sunny winter day, the coyotes were hunting mice in the snow along the wood’s edge. Two of the coyotes were active in the field, tilting their heads to the snow to listen for the scurrying rodents below. Then one or the other would dive into the snow and start digging; eventually one came up with a mouth full of mouse from the efforts. The third coyote, smaller than the other two and probably a pup from last year, stayed in the woods and hunted through the brush and leaves there.

There were no coyotes in the Kickapoo Valley when I was a kid, at least that I can remember. Growing up in La Farge, we hiked these hills around town on a daily basis when the weather was decent. We would see Red Fox back then, but one rarely sees that species around anymore. When the coyote came in, following the big deer herds, they supplanted the fox. Apparently the mange disease that the coyote carry is deadly to the fox specie and has nearly eliminated it.

Whitetail deer are so plentiful in these parts today that we hardly remember that fifty years ago it was rare to even see a deer around here. When I was growing up in La Farge during that time, the men all took off for the “North” to hunt for deer. For some that might mean going to Jackson County and hunting in the sand country there. For my family, it meant heading to far northern Wisconsin and hunting with relatives who lived in Vilas County. Men would be gone for weeks at a time to “deer camp” in the northern woods because that’s where the deer were. There were few of the species here in the Kickapoo Valley and those hunters who bagged a big buck locally were few and far between. Previously (December 2007) I wrote a Local History Notebook about those differences in then and now regarding deer hunting. (If you want to check that column out, it is LH Notebook number forty-six in my history of La Farge book.)

When researching the history of La Farge, I will often come across references to wildlife from year’s past. One notation in the old La Farge newspapers mentioned that a “Redbird” had been seen for the first time in the La Farge area. This initial sighting of a cardinal, a common bird in the Valley today, was significant because none had been seen before. The editor of the La Farge newspaper even wanted to lay claim that it was the first positive sighting of a cardinal in western Wisconsin, but a report from La Crosse indicated a sighting there a few weeks before the one seen in the Kickapoo Valley.

Another local story from the beginning of the twentieth century told of an opossum being brought to La Farge to view. It was displayed in town for nearly a week and the folks were amazed to gaze at the strange looking marsupial for the first time. It had been live-trapped on Weister Creek and the editor mentioned that few had ever seen possum in the wild here in the Kickapoo Valley. Today, the possum is common in our area and most often seen in the night, when it likes to roam and feed.

A front-page article from an issue of the La Farge Enterprise from the early 1960’s that I recently ran across speaks volumes as to how things change over the years. Back then, as part of the summer recreation program, La Farge kids were bussed to Viroqua a couple of mornings each week in the summer for swimming lessons at the Viroqua pool. One such bus trip on a June morning was stopped in the Brush Hollow area as the driver spotted a doe and fawn feeding in a roadside field. The bus stopped for several minutes to watch the animals, as most of the children had never seen a sight like that before. Imagine that, stopping the bus because seeing a doe and fawn was such a special and rare thing.

As I finish this writing, I will check the tree along Bear Creek that is located across from my driveway. For much of last fall and this winter, there was often a bald eagle perched there, surveying the menu choices for a morning meal. Breakfast on Bear Creek was nearly a daily repast for this fine example of our national symbol. The eagle has not been around much this spring. It may be doing some nest duty like our famous pair over in Decorah.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Story of the La Farge Dam

(The following is an excerpt from "That Dam History! - The Story of the La Farge Dam Project", which I hope to have for release to the public by December of this year)

When Congress authorized the Kickapoo Valley flood-control project in October of 1962, most people in the Kickapoo Valley and especially in La Farge assumed that construction on the dam and levees would soon begin. After a quarter-century of study and assessment of the Valley and its flooding problems, most felt that the Corps of Engineers crews would soon be in the La Farge area to start construction on the dam, which would be located north of the village. With the Kickapoo River flooding continuing unabated into the 1960’s, Valley residents looked forward with anticipation to the remedies to the constant flooding as outlined in the federal plan. The structural approach of a dam and levees as proposed by the Corps would soon provide relief from the flooding problem. Alas, the immediate construction and implementation of the Kickapoo Project was far from being a reality.

Even before the authorization of the Kickapoo Project in the autumn of 1962, there had been a number of negotiations and correspondence between the Corps and various Wisconsin state agencies. As part of the run-up to the announcement of the project in September of 1962, the Corps had sent the proposal for the Kickapoo Valley to the governor and a number of state agencies in Madison. This was part of the standard protocol for the federal agency when planning these types of projects – to let the state agencies and governor know about the project in advance and seek input on the plan. Remembering that this was the first federal project of this type and scope in the Badger state, when the Corps of Engineers plan for the Kickapoo Valley was sent to the various agency offices in Madison, the initial process was anything but smooth.

The Wisconsin Department of Conservation was the first state office to question the Corps plan for the Kickapoo Valley. In the plan submitted to the state agency, the Corps had called for the development, maintenance and management of the recreational areas around the La Farge impoundment to be carried out by the state’s Conservation Department. Despite earlier correspondence about the Kickapoo Project by the Corps and state conservation department on a number of planning steps and studies, the two departments had not clarified which agency was responsible for the limited recreational areas included in the project. The cost of developing and maintaining the proposed recreational sites was a sensitive to the state conservation agency, since it had earlier begged off on any financial responsibility for the Wildcat Mountain State Park lake proposal. Citing lack of sufficient funding to take on the lake project at Wildcat Mountain, the Conservation Department informed the Corps that it also lacked funds to pay for recreational development for their project at La Farge. Negotiations between the federal and state agencies continued through the summer of 1962 and a compromise was reached. The final Kickapoo Valley plan presented for authorization by the Corps in the fall listed the development of the recreational areas as a federal responsibility, while the state of Wisconsin, through its Conservation Department, would manage and maintain the recreation sites.

Governor Gaylord Nelson also raised concerns about the Kickapoo Project when he first saw it in March of 1962. The Wisconsin governor’s objections were more towards procedure than to content. Apparently, the Corps of Engineers, when first presenting the plan for the Kickapoo Valley to the various state agencies and the governor, had asked for comments on the plan be submitted within a month’s time. Governor Nelson soon sent a letter to the Corps criticizing the short time frame for comment on the plan; a time frame that the governor felt was rushed and ill advised. When the governor’s letter became public, many people in the Kickapoo Valley were concerned that the governor no longer supported the plan. In a number of letters written to various government leaders in the Kickapoo Valley, Governor Nelson assured all that he still favored the plan, but was against the hurried process for approval that the Corps was using. Eventually Nelson signed on to the Kickapoo Project despite his objections to the hurried nature of the process.

Both of those early issues that were raised by Governor Nelson and the Conservation Department showed a certain detachment regarding the state regarding the Corps’ Kickapoo Project. The project was a federal project, administered by a federal agency and paid for with federal dollars. Over the years, the Army Corps of Engineers had developed a certain protocol in dealing with the states where their projects were located. Although it was important for the Corps to get the various state agencies and particularly the governor’s office solidly behind the projects, it was more a formality than a necessity. Most states welcomed the large federal public works projects with open arms. As was the case for flood control in the Kickapoo Valley, these federal projects filled a need and involved a minimum of cost to state and local governments. In reality, the Corps involved the states in the planning process on these projects more as a courtesy. For the Corps of Engineers, the political leaders to please resided in Washington D. C. and not Madison, Wisconsin.