The amazing nexus of Digger Crayfish and land trusts

DIGGER CRAYFISHA surprising thing happened this year on the way to trapping salamanders and prairie crayfish in Ozaukee County as part of a county and land trust project to map and inventory existing wildlife species.

Gary Casper and his volunteers discovered a previously unidentified critter, a “Digger Crayfish.” In fact, they found about three dozen at two sites near Cedar Grove and Belgium. Not everyone would find that news exciting, but I do.

The find came as the land trust movement in Wisconsin turns 40 years old. Casper, a herpetologist and former board member for the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT), has worked 10 years on a mapping project to help trusts and other land conservation entities make informed decisions about which land and waters to protect. With precious financial resources, land trusts need his new species mapping tool.

He and his researchers pored through thousands of pages of records to learn life cycle patterns of fish, birds, mammals, trees, vegetation, reptiles and amphibians. Then they matched the locations of species to the patterns of land and water habitat. They can show the places that best meet the needs of either the most species or the rarest species.

In their work, for example, they found out that the Prairie Crayfish is not as rare as once thought. It has been found in substantial numbers in this region.

Digger Crayfish Burrow

Digger Crayfish Burrow

But the “Digger” is rare. It turns out that it actually had been discovered earlier, but misidentified. After the 2013 find, Casper also found them in pickled samples from 1911 and 1988 at the Milwaukee Public Museum. They were inaccurately recorded there. The markings are different.

“We look at landscapes through the eyes of critters,” Casper told members of the Cedar Lake Conservation Foundation (CLCF) at its annual meeting last week. “They (different species) have particular needs, so we need to identify critical habitats that support them.

He added, “You would be absolutely amazed on how little we know about the wildlife in our state.”

Casper’s research draws on thousands of observations across Milwaukee River basin, including work by birders’ organizations and recent counts at the new Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory north of Port Washington at OWLT’s Forest Beach Migratory Preserve.

More than 230 bird species were identified there under the guidance and leadership of the late Noel Cutright, a beloved ornithologist.

To appeal to differing species, 22 ponds and varied plants and trees were reintroduced to the old Squires Gold Course after the drainage tiles were broken. The Preserve has been re-established as a stop-over location along Lake Michigan for migrating fowl.

The species work, habitat restoration and preservation by a burgeoning statewide land trust movement go hand in hand.

In its 20 years, OWLT has now protected through purchases, gifts, easements or partnerships 5600 acres of sensitive lands, many along the banks of the Milwaukee River tributaries and branches and its five stop-overs on the Lake Michigan corridor. It owns about 1100 acres.

In its 40-year history, CLCF has protected about 2400 acres in the Cedar Lakes basin. It owns about 1000 acres.

Both land trusts, two of the best in the nation, have major protection projects in the works for 2014. Their efforts in the two counties are sterling elements of conservation at a larger scale. (Disclosure: I am a member of both.)

In Wisconsin, home of 55 land trusts across 72 counties, Gathering Waters, the umbrella organization for the state’s trusts, reports almost 300,000 acres preserved. It’s a small fraction of the state’s 43 million acres. But public bodies have preserved 5.7 million more acres, many of them working lands. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which was launched 60 years ago, accounts for 230,000 of those conserved lands.

Almost all of these lands are open to recreation, including hunting and fishing. It’s a big deal in the state where fragmentation of habitat into small, private tracts is crowding out hunters and anglers like me. Imagine what the parcelization does for critters that depend on movement for food and reproduction.

The preservation work is national and even international. Protected TNC land has grown to 20.5 million acres in the U. S. and more than 100 million acres across the globe.

Organizations like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited also do heavy lifting. DU just completed a 15-year program called “Grasslands for Tomorrow” that hit its goal of one million acres of wetlands and grasslands protected. The result: North America is enjoying record numbers of waterfowl, nearly 50 million birds in good nesting years.

All this magnificent conservation progress comes in the face of population growth and relentless urbanization. Thankfully, our state has recognized the need for growth planning when it adopted the Comprehensive Plan Law in 1990.

As Mary Franz, CLCF President said, “The land pulls us all together.”

Next project for Casper: species mapping in Milwaukee County, for which he has a grant. Then the local trusts need to sponsor an extension into Washington County. We need to join Ozaukee County and Milwaukee County in identifying habitat for critters to invest wisely in protection.

And, who knows what he and his citizen scientists might discover in our backyard?

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