Buena Vista Grasslands: A Quick Primer
The Buena Vista Grasslands, south of Plover, Wisconsin, is a product of Wisconsin’s last glaciation.
Some 15,000 years ago a glacier extended into central Wisconsin. Meltwater from the glacier deposited fine silt and sand beyond the glacier’s terminus and into a large glacial lake occupying much of central Wisconsin. The sand settled on the lake bed leveling the landscape. Once the glacial lake drained, a vast tamarack swamp with extensive areas of open marsh and alder shrubs developed.
In the late 1800’s the timber was cut and the marsh was burned. In 1890 the State of Wisconsin formed the Portage County Drainage District and in 1905 The District began operations in townships of Buena Vista, Grant and Pine Grove to drain the marsh. Extensive acreage in the district was purchased by the Bradley Polytechnic Institute of Illinois. An employee of Bradley, W. (Wallie) B. Coddington platted a community to be known as Pine Island in 1911. The name Pine Island (it was one area of high ground in the marsh with some pine trees taller than the tamarack) never really took. A post office was established at the location in 1912 and was called Coddington, the name sake of a road running through the area.
After drainage, about 1/4 of the area was cultivated, 1/4 remained wet marsh or brush, and the rest was grassland habitat providing habitat for the greater prairie chicken. Agriculture failed due to the short growing season, severe frost, and soil chemistry problems that were difficult to remedy at the time. As a result of the severe frosts, bluegrass agriculture become the dominate use of the land. Eventually, the bluegrass market failed due to market competition from other countries. With modern farming techniques and overhead irrigation, the area is again a major agricultural force.
Today the sandy soil provides wonderful grounds for potato production. A high water table allows pivot irrigation that makes the whole process possible. Without frequent irrigation, the sandy soil becomes too dry to support crops.
Fran and Fred Hamerstrom started their internationally known studies of the Greater Prairie Chicken in 1949. They were credited with playing a major role in keeping the bird from disappearing from Wisconsin. Their advocacy resulted in purchase of grassland in a patchwork distribution providing appropriate habitat sprinkled across a wide geographic area. The Hamerstroms worked closely with the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point as adjunct professors. Since the Hamerstrom’s have been influential in the development of UWSP, one could also say Stevens Point is what is today because of prairie chicken preservation.
Today the grasslands are managed to prevent the growth of woody plants. Prescribed burning, managed grazing, mowing of woody vegetation, herbicide control of woody vegetation and invasive plant control are all used to maintain the grasslands in a state suitable for the Greater Prairie Chicken. It is an example where farmland and grassland work together to provide habitat for wildlife.