Price County, Northcentral Wisconsin

Helping Wildlife While Improving a Recreation Property

Thirteen years ago, Les Strunk bought 77 acres 250 miles north of his Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, home. The property is in northcentral Wisconsin’s Price County near the town of Prentice. Strunk characterizes his land as “a recreation property” and has enrolled it in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Managed Forest Law Program.

Before habitat work

Start with a fairly uniform growth of hardwood and softwood trees . . .

“The terrain is rolling, with maybe a 30-foot change in elevation over the 77 acres,” Strunk says. “A century ago it was farmland – rocky, wet in places, and finally abandoned to turn back into forest. I can go through my woods and find big rockpiles left from when they picked rocks out of the fields.” A manager in industrials sales, Strunk also describes himself as “a deer hunter” and “a sometimes bird hunter. I go out and walk around with the shotgun. I also encourage friends who are grouse hunters to use the property.” He adds: “I enjoy being out on the land. I like to sit and watch. Seeing a bobcat or a fisher go past – that’s pretty cool. There’s a lot of diversity on those 77 acres.”

When Strunk learned about the Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership (WYFP), he realized he could add to his property’s diversity. “I saw the program as a great opportunity for me to improve the land for wildlife. What went through my mind was this: If I make the habitat better for birds, it’ll also be better for deer.”

alder shearing underway

Turn a tracked mowing machine loose on a winter's day . . .

Here’s what Strunk started with: Woodlands composed of hard maple, white and red oak, spruce, balsam fir, and paper birch, along with some forest stands that were predominately aspen. “There are about eight different stands of popple regrowth,” he says. “Some of the trees are small, some larger.” Lowland areas, once farmed for hay, have come back in white spruce, black cherry, and tag alder. Wildlife is fairly abundant: good flights of woodcock coming through in autumn, along with songbirds, bear, deer, and ruffed grouse. But much of the habitat has gotten past the point where it was thick enough to still be called young forest, and had arrived in that middle-aged growth stage that doesn’t offer a lot of food or cover to wildlife.

After receiving a WYFP mailing, Strunk contacted Callie Bertsch, based in Rhinelander and a habitat coordinator with the American Bird Conservancy. Bertsch did a site visit to Strunk’s land in October 2014. “I showed her around and explained what I was looking to do,” Strunk says. Together, he and Bertsch decided that mowing down some of the alder was a good first step in bringing areas of thick, tangled habitat back to the landscape.

new vegetation following habitat management

And here's what results after a single growing season: thick habitat that offers ample food and cover for wildlife

“You know how old alder gets leggy, with branches as big as your forearm, some of them broken off and falling over,” Strunk says. “We identified about seven acres like that where the shrubs were candidates for mowing.”

Adding Diversity to the Woods

Things happened fast. Bertsch got in touch with Ted Koehler, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program had funds available, so Koehler contracted with the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society to come to the Strunk property and do some mowing, which took place in February 2015. Says Bertsch, “On what I think was the coldest day of the winter, Mike Riggle, an RGS volunteer, came and did the mowing.” He used a tracked machine with a fast-rotating cutting head to chew down the old alder. “The alder that was sheared was scattered in two different areas,” says Bertsch, “with a corridor of young aspen in between the two areas. We decided to leave some of the slightly younger alder unmowed, with an eye toward coming back and doing more shearing in the future.”

One day’s worth of machine time had a huge impact. “At first, it looked like a raw wound on the land,” Strunk says, “but in the spring, when that stuff started growing back, it came back with a vengeance.” After a single growing season, willow, young cherry, blackberry, and, of course, alder shoots sprang up. “Some of the regrowth is already five feet tall,” Strunk says. He notes that “this is not just a postage-stamp project. It redefined the edges of cover on the property. It created more edge cover. And that’s the kind of cover that really attracts wildlife.”

yellow warbler

Yellow warblers often site their nests in thick young alders and willows./T. Berriman

Bertsch agrees. “I went and looked at the regrowth in the fall of 2015. It’s really coming back strong. Woodcock and golden-winged warblers will use this as nesting and feeding habitat in just a few years. The dense vegetation will be a good insect area for golden-wings to hang out in and find food.” She points out that many other birds, including alder flycatchers, yellow warblers, brown thrashers, whip-poor-wills, and white-throated sparrows, will also find the habitat to their liking.

There have been other benefits as well. “The alder shearing gave me an opportunity to go in and open up old trails,” Strunk says, “plus put in new trails to get around on the property.” Altogether, Strunk has more than 1.6 miles of trails veining the 77 acres. He and his wife enjoy hiking on the trails, enjoying the changing seasons, and using the new openings as vantage points for watching wildlife. “I look forward to relearning the property,” Strunk says, “because so much has changed after the management activities.”

And isn’t that what owning a “recreation property” is all about?


Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, American Bird Conservancy, Ruffed Grouse Society, Wildlife Management Institute