Measuring the values of wildlife habitat restoration on northern Wisconsin lakes: the Wisconsin Lakeshore Restoration Project
There is a globally significant concentration of glacial lakes in the Northern Highland Ecological Landscape (NHEL) of Wisconsin
(Figure 1): 4,291 lakes, 1,543 miles of streams, including the headwaters of the Wisconsin and Manitowish-Flambeau-Chippewa river systems. Many lakes are connected by small streams. Rare aquatic species and extensive wetlands occur here. The current land cover is 48% upland forest, 34% wetlands (both forested and non-forested), 13% open water, 5% grassland and open land, and 1% urban; 30% of the land area and 43% of the forestland is in public ownership. Population density is relatively low; 2010 census = 23 persons/square mile. Despite low settlement density, the land cover and hydrology of the region has been dramatically altered the past 140 years (see Background). A high level of demand, and exceptional water quality, has driven the current (2016) real estate value of vacant lakeshore
properties of a minimum allowed size (100’ x 300’) to over $100K. Recent studies have shown that high levels of development can impact the ecological health of NHEL lakes.
In 2007, the first-ever Environmental Protection Agency's National Lakes Assessment (NLA)
confirmed the significance of lakeshore habitat to lake biological health. Nationally, the most widespread stressors measured as part of the NLA were those that affected the shoreline and shallow water areas, which in turn can affect biological condition. Results from the NLA showed that the most widespread of these is the alteration of lakeshore habitat (EPA 2007). That same year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) Bureau of Science Services initiated a long-term study to quantify the ecological benefits of lakeshore restoration on NHEL lakes with shorelines significantly altered by development for housing and recreation in Vilas County, Wisconsin, USA. WDNR partnered with Michigan Technological University (MTU), local conservation departments, contractors and nurseries, landscapers and designers, and lake property owners to rehabilitate lakeshore habitat by planting native trees, shrubs, and groundcover, and installing shore and toe erosion management systems within a ten-meter buffer (35') of the ordinary high water mark (OHWM).
Known as the Wisconsin Lakeshore Restoration Project (WLRP), the project also investigates whether these endeavors led to enhanced wildlife habitat quality on 5 developed lakes (Crystal, Found, Lost, Little St. Germain, and Moon Lakes) within the NHEL (Figure 1). The goal of the project is to establish lakeshore restoration projects on private and public properties and assess whether wildlife habitat structure, wildlife populations, and native plant diversity increase on restored lakeshores and whether the restored habitat is becoming more like that found on paired, undeveloped (reference) lakes. Each paired "Reference Lake" (n=5) was chosen to have similar morphometry, water chemistry, and land cover to the "Developed Lake." Habitat and wildlife measures are made at "Control" (unrestored) and "Treated" (restored) lakeshores on the Developed Lakes and compared to those made at the Reference Lake.
Specific objectives include: 1) evaluating lakeshore development impacts in the NHEL by comparing mammalian carnivore diversity and abundance at developed and undeveloped lakes, 2) comparing habitat structure before and after lakeshore restoration projects on developed lakeshores, and comparing results to undeveloped lakeshores, and 3) developing Best Management Practices for Lakeshore Restoration in the NHEL by investigating a) the benefits of Downed Woody Material on restoration projects, b) the cost-benefits of fencing, irrigation, and plant stock source for restorations, and c) the cost-benefits of bare-root vs. container vs. gravel culture trees and shrubs.
This research project was conducted by Michigan Technological University scientists Dan Haskell, Dr. David Flaspohler, and Dr. Chris Webster and staff under contract and in collaboration with Dr. Michael Meyer, WDNR Science Services. A decision was made early in the project to put an “non-government face” on the project as it was thought access to private lands would be better acquired. Mr. Haskell directed field activities and data collection, while the MTU team worked together on data analysis, report writing, and manuscript preparation. Results presented in this report are currently being readied for dissemination to private and government lake managers in the region, as well as to lake associations and private property owners.