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Preserving Waupaca’s Prairie

Bob Welch with Mr. Gentleman Handsome Jackson, a rescued mustang from Wyoming. Welch runs the Waupaca Field Station, a prairie and oak savanna where students and researchers work on a variety of environmental projects. James Card Photo

Birds, butterflies and Bob Welch

By James Card

“When you read all of the different books and treatises on prairies, Wisconsin is never considered to be a prairie state and it’s an insult,” said Bob Welch.

He cited the early French explorers first used the word prairie (the French word for meadow) in Wisconsin to describe the grasslands of the New World.

Welch takes this personally as the prairie landscape of Wisconsin has become a part of his personal history. He is the founder of the Waupaca Field Station where his land abuts the Emmons Creek Fishery Area, a semi-open oak savanna mixed with forest.

The Waupaca Field Station is a privately-owned, nonprofit 165-acre biological research station Welch established in 1982. Since then he has shared this landscape with many people. He established a scientist-in-residence program, hosted student interns that have gone off to study natural resources at the university level, guided countless field trips and teacher training workshops and coordinated research projects.

Each year he hosts students for an annual spring bird-banding jamboree and visitors from around the state help band neotropical migrants as they pass through Waupaca County. This spring between mid-April though mid-June they caught over 1,200 birds of 56 different species. They used 30-40 fine-meshed nets eight feet tall and 40 feet long to capture the birds in four different habitat zones.

On May 21 they captured one adult male Connecticut warbler. “I’ve never seen it in my life. There are only three breeding pairs in Wisconsin,” said Welch.
None of these activities would exist if Welch did not have a long-term vision for the land, an indefatigable work ethic and a gambler’s instinct that everything just might work out in the end.

The early years

Welch grew up in Madison and explored the nearby marshes and savannas and would climb to the top of huge burr oaks and look over the landscape. All that land is developed now.

“I’ll never be part of the sprawl definition of what humans are doing to the landscape. I will always try to find a place and fix it up and I will be part of that history and I will not impact the landscape as much as it was impacted when it was built,” he said.

That fixer-upper was located in Waupaca. His family moved to the area when his father took a job with the Wisconsin Veterans Home in 1967. He was 13 years old and he grew up on the Chain O’ Lakes.

His family became friends with Norm and Charlotte Sawyer, who owned an old house and farmstead near Emmons Creek. Welch looked after the house while studying biology and wildlife at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

While working as a part-time caretaker he provided the Sawyers reports on the botany and wildlife on their property. In 1974, they established the Emmons Creek Bird Observatory and Ringing Station, an official federal bird-banding station.

Norm passed away and in 1989, Charlotte offered him the property in a rent-to-own arrangement. Years later before her death and with prairie restorations underway, she sold him the rest of her land holdings to round it out to the 165 acres it is today.

Odd butterflies

“We had a butterfly out here. What is this little blue butterfly? We couldn’t find out what it was. It wasn’t in any of the Peterson field guides,” said Welch as he recalled taking students on field trips.

In 1990 a DNR biologist and a land acquisition specialist came to his door. They mentioned the blue butterflies on his land.

Welch replied he couldn’t figure out what they were. They laughed and said he was right. It wasn’t in any field guide. It was a rare butterfly found only in the glacial lakes region and a survivor of the last Ice Age. It was a candidate for federally endangered species. It was the Karner blue butterfly.

“I said, ‘You are kidding? We have thousands of them!” said Welch.

They asked him if he would be willing to sell the property. He said no but he would be willing to help. Welch and Sawyer signed a contract with the DNR called Acres for Wildlife and that gave them a little more money for restoration work.

“I became a farmer of prairie grasses and wildflowers,” he said. He planted wildflowers by hand and later acquired tractors and implements and seed harvesters.

The federal government learned about their involvement with the Acres for Wildlife program and visited. They were surprised at his willingness to put in the work to restoring the prairie.

“It’s in our plan,” replied Welch. “And the butterfly is something extra that is wonderful.”

They signed contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service that provided extra money for planting more prairie species. Welch was told that he and Sawyer were the first private property owners in the nation to agree to preserve land for the Karner blue butterfly.

Betting the prairie

At the time Welch and his wife were heavily leveraged making payments on the land they acquired. Half their income went towards the property. They were one step away from losing their house.

Throughout the field station work, Welch wore many hats not just to make a living but to lead a colorful life. He’s worked as an environmental consultant, an ecologist, a high school science teacher, a state park naturalist, and a DNR wolf trapper. He did a stint working in the newspaper industry in Waupaca and Alaska and has been a volunteer in numerous projects that range from larva collection to dressing up in a Prairie Chicken Costume for the Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival.

It was during this financial crossroads he was encouraged to apply for Partnership for Fish and Wildlife Program, which pays landowners up to 100 percent of the cost of restoring habitat on their properties. It was a lifeline that could protect the prairie he worked so hard to restore.

His application landed at the Minneapolis USFWS office and Welch was told his project was number one in Wisconsin out of 30 other projects. “They told me: ‘You’re working with the kids out here with this butterfly all these years and doing all this restoration. Who else is doing that?’” said Welch.

His application went into the next round and he was told his project was number one in the region composed of seven states.

From there it went to the USFWS headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the application was submitted to Congress. President George W. Bush signed the document and gave it the official green light. They were not in the clear yet. A portion of the funds needed to be matched by the state Nelson-Knowles Stewardship Fund. Fingers were crossed once again but it passed with a unanimous vote.

They were able to pay off their mortgage and get out of debt. Welch’s late wife, Deb, said, “We’re not done here. Let’s go get a loan. We signed on to save the land and we also signed onto save the house.”

They took out a home improvement loan for the farmhouse built in 1856. They restored the house, added insulation and put in solar power in 2010. The house went through multiple audits and won a Focus on Energy award and is 139% more energy efficient than a house built to energy standards in 2012.

“I’ve reached all the goals in my life,” said Welch and one of them was not building a house that would contribute to urban sprawl. He restored a prairie landscape, the old house and mentored hundreds, if not thousands of people. He said he is working on putting the property into a trust to preserve for future generations.

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