Crex Meadows occupies a portion of what early writers referred to as the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. The "Barrens" is a long, narrow sand plain which extends from northern Polk county to southern Bayfield County and covers 1500 square miles. The southern portion of the "Barrens", where Crex is located, contains extensive sedge marshes which are remnants of Glacial Lake Grantsburg.
At the time of settlement, the upland vegetation in the area now occupied by Crex, consisted of a few large red and jack pine (approximately eight per acre) scattered throughout an open expanse dominated by brush and a variety of prairie grasses and forbs. The vegetation was maintained in this condition by wildfires which periodically swept through the area.
Fox, Dakota, and Chippewa Indians used the area extensively for hunting and gathering. Numerous Indian battles are said to have occurred in the region during the 1600s and the Chippewa Tribe ruled the area when the first European settlers arrived in the 1700s.
White settlement in the mid 1800s brought many changes. Settlers tried farming the sandy upland soils but generally had poor success. Most of the farming attempts on the uplands were soon abandoned.
With settlement came the first attempts at fire control. It was primitive at first but as settlement progressed and fire fighting techniques and equipment improved, the number and extent of wildfires declined. In the absence of fire, much of the area grew into an oak-jack pine forest. Prairie wildlife gradually declined as the brush prairie habitat was lost.
Large scale drainage of wetlands for farming, initiated in 1890, upset the entire ecological pattern of the marshes. Drainage caused a decline in the number of nesting and migrant waterfowl and other wetland species, but provided excellent habitat for prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Long-time residents' recollections of flocks containing thousands of prairie grouse are substantiated by newspaper accounts from that period.
In the late 1800s the Marshland Farming Company acquired 11,000acres of marsh on which they successfully produced cranberries. They employed several hundred people to harvest the cranberry crop and prepare it for shipment. The company abandoned the cranberry operation after a few years and began drainage operations to develop the marsh for hay and vegetable production.
The Marshland Farming Company sold out to Mr. Erbes, a developer from Iowa, in 1899. He continued the drainage operations with the intent of developing farmland which could be sold as smaller farms. Most of the land was sold as intended. Marsh hay was harvested from much of the area but production of other crops was unsuccessful.
In 1912, the Crex Carpet Company purchased 23,000 acres of what is now Crex Meadows. The carpet company was an eastern corporation engaged in the production of grass rugs. Three carpet camps (camp numbers five, six, and eight) were located in the area. Each camp employed 50-100 men who harvested "wiregrass" (Carex spp.) from the marshes and shipped it to the factory in St. Paul where it was made into grass carpets. The wire grass industry continued successfully until market conditions and ecological changes in the marsh caused bankruptcy of the Crex Carpet Company in 1933.
The history of Crex Carpet Company was highlighted in the Winter 2006 issue of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Historical Society magazine. For more information about how to order a copy of the magazine and about this important piece of history, please visit their website, http://www.rchs.com/crex/crex.htm.
During the depression and drought years of the 1930s, further drainage and agricultural attempts failed. By 1940, nearly two thirds of the land in the area was tax delinquent. In 1946, the state purchased 12,000 acres of this tax delinquent land to start the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area.
Glacial till was deposited over all of Burnett County as a result of the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier 10-15,000 years ago. The till varies in thickness from a few feet up to 300 feet. A glacial lake, Glacial Lake Grantsburg, was formed as a result of this glacier. This lake drained away over the years but the deepest portions had poor drainage and gradually evolved into the shallow sedge marshes which dominate the area.
The soils of the sedge marshes consist of several feet of organic material over 100-300 feet of sand. Uplands have a thin, poorly developed topsoil over 100-300 feet of sand.
Research indicates that the original, pre-settlement, vegetation was a pine savannah, or brush prairie, with an average of eight large red or jack pine per acre. The understory was dominated by brush, primarily young jack pine and oak, with lesser amounts of hazel, sand willow, sweet fern, blueberry, and large variety of prairie grasses and forbs. This vegetation type was maintained by frequent wildfires. Fire control, which began in the 1920s was effective in controlling the number and extent of wildfires. In the absence of fire, most of the brush prairie grew into oak-jack pine forest. Today, upland pine-oak stands average 318 trees per acres. The present forests are thus in an unnatural condition resulting from wildfire control.
Following the initial prescribed burns which were the first efforts to convert forests back to brush prairie, a tremendous response in prairie plants was observed. As noted elsewhere in Wisconsin, prairie plants persisted for decades under the forest canopy until released by removal of the forest overstory. The Crex plant list includes over 700 species including more the 300 with prairie affinities. Some of the more common prairie plants are big and little bluestem, Indian grass, needlegrass, leadplant, hoary puccoon, prairie phlox, blazing star, and spiderwort.
Brush prairie is a unique vegetation type which has been largely eliminated in Wisconsin due to fire control and intensive pine forest culture. The existing remnants of brush prairie now occur principally on state owned lands. Thus, vegetation management of Crex takes on a much broader role than just providing habitat for select wildlife species. A remnant of an interesting and original Wisconsin ecosystem is being maintained. The value of Crex Meadows may, in the long term, be greater for its native vegetation types and restored ecosystems than for its abundant and well known wildlife species.
Sedge marshes covered approximately half of the property at the time of settlement. These marshes were dominated by sedges, primarily Carex spp., but contained grasses and scattered shrubs. Large scale drainage of the sedge marshes occurred at the turn of the century. Subsequent harvest of sedges for hay kept the marshes largely brush free. Following widespread farm abandonment, the demise of the Crex Carpet Company, and increased fire control, the marshes were invaded by willow, alder, bog birch, and spirea. On most marshes this successional trend has finally been reversed through flowage construction and repeated burning.
Today, nearly all wetlands are affected to some degree by flowages. The less affected marshes are still dominated by sedge and bluejoint grass. The flooded marshes support an excellent growth of aquatic plants such as cattail, pickerel weed, pondweeds, bulrush, bladderwort, water lily and arrowheads.
Several large stands of tamarack were present at the time of settlement but only a few small stands remain. One northern bog lake, with associated ericaceous species, is located in the northwest corner of the property.
The average annual precipitation for Burnett County is thirty inches. Crex has approximately 6,000 acres of open water in a normal precipitation year. Most of the open water is in the twenty-nine flowages. Other open water areas include four natural lakes, scores of beaver ponds and natural openings in the sedge marshes, and hundreds of constructed potholes. Water levels are dependent on precipitation and during drought periods open water may be greatly reduced. Drainage on the property is primarily from the northeast to southwest. The sedge marshes drop one to three feet per mile. Three streams begin on the property and drain into the Wood and St. Croix Rivers.
The sheer size of Crex along with the interspersion of brush prairie, sedge marsh, flowages, and forests provide habitat for a great diversity of wildlife. Two hundred and seventy species of birds use the property along with nearly every mammal found in Wisconsin and a good variety of reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.
Crex contains the largest remnant of brush prairie and some of the most extensive sedge marshes in Wisconsin. These two habitat types account for most of the more uncommon species. Sharp-tailed grouse, upland sandpiper, Franklin ground squirrel, hognose snake, and prairie skink are among Wisconsin's more uncommon species which reach their peak abundance in brush prairie. Some of the common species of the brush prairie include: clay colored vesper and savannah sparrow, rufous-sided towhee, eastern kingbird, Brewers blackbird, pocket gopher, and bullsnake.
The sedge marshes provide habitat for uncommon species such as: sharp-tailed and LeConte's sparrows, and yellow rails. More common species of the sedge marshes include: sandhill cranes, sedge wrens, bobolinks, American bitterns, and common yellowthroats.
One of the highlights of Crex is the number of endangered and threatened species. Crex has breeding populations of osprey, eagles, trumpeter swans, Karner blue butterflies, Blandings turtles, and red-necked grebes. Timber wolves have used the property on a regular basis in recent years and a pack has recently been designated the "Crex pack". Non resident endangered and threatened species include the peregrine falcon, common and Caspian tern, and great egret.
Wildlife is especially abundant and visible during the fall migration when as many as 50 bald eagles, 7000 sandhill cranes, 12,000 Canada and snow geese, and thousands of ducks are present. The spring migration is less spectacular with fewer individual animals but a much greater variety of species.
Approximately 75% of Crex visitors come to view the wildlife and landscape. These visitors range from the casual observer to the serious birder and naturalist. The popularity of these activities at Crex are attributed to the large size of the property, spectacular, unobstructed vistas, a great diversity and abundance of plant and wildlife species, and a system of well maintained roads, observation areas and rest area which provide excellent access and abundant opportunities for` viewing wildlife and the landscape.
Prairie wildflower observation and study is rapidly gaining in popularity. Crex is one of the few places in Wisconsin which offer abundant opportunities for these activities. The prairie wildflower display peaks in late spring and continues on through the summer into early fall.
Wildlife photography blinds are also available in the spring and summer. These blinds give people a unique opportunity to get up close to observe and capture in film wildlife and their behaviors.
Other distinct wildlife recreational opportunities include hiking and cross county skiing on miles of developed and undeveloped trails, snow shoeing, photography, and nature study.
Twenty-five percent of the visitors come to hunt or trap. With the exception of the 2400 acre refuge, the entire area is open to hunting and trapping. Crex provides abundant hunting opportunities for deer, bear, waterfowl, and a variety of small game. It is one of the few places in Wisconsin which offers good opportunities for sharp-tailed grouse hunting. Trappers have opportunities for nearly every furbearer found in Wisconsin.WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT PRACTICES
Crex Meadows is intensively managed using a wide variety of wildlife management practices. Wetland and prairie restoration and maintenance practices are employed to a greater degree here than at any other wildlife area in Wisconsin. To date, twenty-two miles of dike have been constructed to create twenty-nine flowages which flood six thousand acres. Water levels are managed with thirty-four water control structures, eight miles of water transfer ditches, and a diversion pump. Clearing and prescribed burning were used to restore seven thousand acres of brush prairie. Approximately, thirty-five hundred acres of brush prairie and sedge marsh are burned annually for maintenance purposes. Firebreak construction, mowing, and herbicide application are also employed to restore and maintain brush prairie habitat.
Wetland management is employed primarily to increase waterfowl production. Management practices include water level manipulation, construction and maintenance of waterfowl nesting islands, establishment of dense nesting cover, and construction of breeding pair ponds.
A variety of surveys are conducted to monitor wildlife populations and harvest levels, evaluate management practices, and determine levels of public use. Other management practices include planting agricultural crops for migrating and, to a lesser extent, resident wildlife, waterfowl banding (using swim-in and cannon netting), and construction of nesting structures for water fowl, eagles, osprey, herons, and cormorants.
A variety of wildlife research projects are conducted by Department personnel and universities. Recent projects include the trumpeter swan reintroduction, trapping and monitoring of timber wolves, a sharp-tailed grouse relocation project, and Karner blue butterfly and pine barrens studies.
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