Driving along State Highway 151 three miles east of Chilton in Calumet County, the 7,000-acre Killsnake State Wildlife Area (WA) stays quietly hidden among the surrounding towns, villages and fields. This subtle presence belies its vast expanse and importance for wildlife habitat and water quality management. It contains the Killsnake River, the South Branch of the Manitowoc River, and Cedar Creek. The WA’s rivers, marshes and cedar swamps host diverse species of birds and waterfowl, some rare. The property extends east into southwestern Manitowoc County as well. Thanks to its old grassy fields, numerous wetland and prairie restorations by the Wisconsin DNR, an increasing number of grassland birds and mammals enjoy its habitat and continue to grow in numbers and species.
The DNR website for state wildlife areas, www.dnr.wi.gov, offers some interesting background. In 1948, the Killsnake Bottoms and Cedar Creek area occupied about 4,500 acres within the present boundary – all leased land. The first purchase came in 1956 in Manitowoc County (referred to in Rock Anderson’s recollection below) and in the mid-1960s the property was expanded into Calumet County. Originally set up as a goose satellite area, it still shares its ecosystem functions with agriculture on over 1,000 acres. Restorations of prairie on over 1,500 acres along with small wetlands totaling over 50 sites continue to add to the diversity of this property. The Wisconsin DNR would like to ultimately expand it to 9,106 acres as additional properties become available.
Currently, the DNR uses prescribed burning for grasslands to support a variety of wildlife. They manipulate water levels to manage small impoundments or ponds, maintain agricultural fields for food production for people and wildlife, and use sustained forest management to yield fiber and optimize habitat for wildlife.
“The landscape consists of prairie grasslands, uplands with large wetland-grassland complex, bottomland hardwood forest, a small area of cedar swamp, a small area of tamarack and bog, agricultural landscape, small areas of upland forest and over 50 small wetland restorations,” according to the website management description.
Now in his 39th year working for the WDNR, Area Game Manager Dick Nikolai has been the main force managing and improving the Killsnake since he began. Looking back, he reflects that, “It’s initial 3,000 acres have more than doubled. Three hundred acres in grasslands now span 2,000. Four initial wetlands now number 45-50 restored. Roughly 1,300-1,500 acres are now in canary grass and the area floods seasonally which was the original impetus for its creation. In the spring, you’ll see 8,000-10,000 ducks and 1,000 geese there. The wetlands host Yellow Rails and uplands have 30 pairs of the nomadic Dicksissels arriving late May into early June and leaving by August. Shovelers show up in the spring. We have three Osprey nests. We have Eagles, Pheasants, Kestrels, Bitterns, Northern Shrike. Grasslands bird species are increasing and include several Sparrows and Harriers. These species were there since the early ‘90s but I’m pleased to see so many more now in 2012. Last year, there were Snowy Egrets!”
“The Killsnake contains the most acres of grasslands next to the Kettles to the south of us. For Northeast Wisconsin, the Killsnake is ‘it’ for grassland habitat.”
“We’ve grown from three parking lots for visitors and hunters to more than 14 now. We haven’t reviewed our master plan since 1979 and will be revisiting it in the next two or three years. Years ago, we mapped invasive species with student help here and in the Brillion Wildlife Area which we’ve used to target our efforts at eradication and containment. I’m pleased to say we’ve controlled 90% of the Wild Parsnips and treated Buckthorn and other species of invasive plants.”
LNRP board member Rock Anderson assisted Nikolai in wetland restorations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On a recent driving tour of the Killsnake, Anderson shared his reflections and insights. “I have been coming here (to the Killsnake) since I was old enough to venture out on my own, when I was nine or 10. I would fish for bullheads off the Lemke Road Bridge or go looking at waterfowl in the spring.”
Anderson continued, “Its archeological sites are some of the oldest in North America going back to pre-tribal times, reportedly with a mastodon kill site. The original marsh area began off Highway 151 East. The first property to be purchased by the WDNR in the 1950s lies in Manitowoc County and was referred to as the ‘state farm’ by locals. Additional farms and property were purchased as they became available.”
“With habitat changing, the canary grass marshes have replaced most of the cedar swamps right along the Manitowoc River in the SW corner of the Killsnake. Throughout the marsh, it’s slowly replacing the lowland hardwoods. When I’m out hiking, I still stumble across the ghosts of cedar trees. The remnant lowland forest containing silver maple and green ash is slowly giving way to canary grass. As old trees die or are damaged, canary grass fills in before tree seedlings can sprout. It produces abundant seeds so it spreads quickly when the opportunity arises.”
“The marsh floods in spring and is full of waterfowl in breeding plumage. Abundant dogwood patches have been cleared to provide open habitat for waterfowl during these periods of high water. The Killsnake River, in particular, contains lots of sediment from upstream land use practices. The North and South Branch of the Manitowoc River come together just northeast of the Wildlife Area to form the main stem.”
“Recreational opportunities include hiking, snowshoeing, day trip canoeing especially where the Killsnake and Manitowoc Rivers converge, bird and waterfowl watching, including Bald Eagles all year round. Snow Buntings flitter like dancing confetti over the prairies in late winter as well as Lapland Longspurs along the roadsides and fields. Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and Short-eared Owls delight in spring and summer. Marsh areas include Osprey nest summertime viewing. The Killsnake WA is a major stopover for Swans in the spring. It is absolutely magnificent to drive through the middle of it on an embankment road. The area even contains native Phragmites which are less prolific remnants and do not spread.”
“Flowing from the south into the area, Cedar Creek has been nearly untouched by time. Hayton Pond flows to the marsh and, with the dam facing possible removal, provides a perfect opportunity for restoration. What many people forget is that rivers are always changing; they’re dynamic and yet we expect them to stay the same. We’re just lucky enough to witness and experience their presence,” Anderson concluded. And, Dick Nikolai added, “The Killsnake is an area near and dear to my heart.”
Come check it out for a x-country ski or snowshoe promenade this winter. You can find the Killsnake Wildlife Area by taking Hwy 57 to Chilton then head east on Hwy 151 for approximately 5 miles. Take a left on Lemke Road heading north through the interior of the property.