Biologists say that the presence of predators in an ecosystem is a good sign. Healthy habitat supports diversity of plant life which feeds a variety of prey species, in turn feeding a strong population of predators – that is what the chain of life is all about.
“When we think about predators, we often get a picture of a wolf or a bear,” says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources large carnivore specialist Dave McFarland. “Those are the kinds of animals I work with. But for many lake property owners, what you’re more likely to see are mink, otter and weasels.”
And, of course, since predators exist at every level of the ecosystem, you may want to consider frogs, dragonflies, hawks, bats, foxes, raccoons and snakes in that list as well. All of them ultimately rely on good, natural habitat.
A current study by DNR research scientist Mike Meyer and a crew of four biologists is setting out to prove how important shoreland habitat restoration is to healthy lakes and ecosystems. “We’ve spent the last six years restoring large buffer zones of native plants around lakes in Vilas County,” Meyer explains. “Although we’re just at the mid-point of our study, we anticipate an increase in native wildlife populations.”
Past studies, according to Meyer, have shown that shoreland development has had a marked negative impact on calling frogs, breeding birds and fur-bearing predators, three categories of animals that are highlighted in the study.
“One of our biggest projects has been on Found Lake in St. Germain, where we’ve worked with property owners to establish 14 different buffer zones around the lake,” he says. “We try to connect the plantings to make the largest contiguous natural areas that we can.”
On natural, undeveloped lakes, according to Meyer, you find such predators as coyotes, wolves and bobcats. “Where there is a lot of development and destruction of natural habitat, the main predators you see are raccoons and red foxes.
“Even with restoration, I don’t think you’ll see a return of the larger carnivores,” he says. “But with more diversity, you’ll see a bigger cast of characters.”
And Meyer points out that it isn’t only land-dwelling wildlife that benefits from restoration of habitat. “These measures are having a direct impact on water quality which affects fish populations,” he says. “A shoreland buffer protects the lake from erosion and run-off, which in turn protects property values.”
Meyer has participated in restoration projects at several other lakes, including a very large one on Crystal Lake in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest. “We encourage people to come take a look at the native plantings here,” he says. “It’s near the nature center, and you can see what a finished project looks like.”
Besides providing habitat for prey species, native plants offer cover for predators. Hunting requires space to move about, and predators with young need even more room.
Catching sight of predators is not always easy, of course. Otter and mink may appear as just a “head” moving through the water, and maybe you’ll get a quick glimpse as they climb out on to shore. A diving eagle or hawk swooping into the water to pick up a fish is a rare, though thrilling, sight.
Bats can sometimes be heard and seen in the early evening hours soaring through the clouds of mosquitoes over your head. Spotting the long-legged great blue heron wading through the shallows searching for frogs or a loon popping up above the surface of the lake between dives is the kind of magic that can make any day special.
But all these predators, in many ways, are dependent on humans to make their life possible. Preserving and restoring habitat is essential to the food chain that they rely on, and this is especially true of lakes, rivers, wetlands and the shoreland that surround them.
Shoreland restoration can be a daunting task, but help is at hand for property owners in Oneida and Vilas counties through their respective county conservation departments. Jean Hansen, with the Oneida County Land and Water Conservation department, has the expertise and even the funding available.
“We have money from a federal program to provide matching funds for restoration projects on lakes, rivers and wetlands,” she explains. “We can come in and help with site assessment and planning, too.”
To qualify for the matching funds, property owners must commit to establishing a 35-foot buffer zone. “Some people don’t want it that big,” she says, “but even 10 feet is good. Anything is better than mowing right down to the edge of the water.”
Hansen has learned a few tricks along the way and can offer advice. “I can help select plants depending on soil type and sun exposure. And I don’t recommend bringing in topsoil; it can be full of weed seeds, and you don’t want that. I suggest putting down compost.”
Another issue can be the use of erosion control materials. “We’ve found that some of the ones that use netting can become a trap for critters. I’ve had chipmunks and even hummingbirds get caught when the netting is too small.”
Now is a good time to plan for a restoration project, according to Hansen. Native groundcovers, shrubs and trees can all be planted right into October and there is still time to apply for matching funds for a project. She can be contacted at her UW-Extension office at (715) 365-2750. Residents in Vilas County may contact Carolyn Scholl at (715) 479-3747.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond™ and Northwoods Commerce™ magazines.