Hogback a vital Wisconsin conservation area

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The Hogback area northwest of Steuben is more than 900 acres and features 80 acres of remnant prairies, which still feature plant species native to the local area. Even among remnant prairies, the Hogback sports several unique features that have resulted in unusual combinations of plant and animal species on its land. (Steve Van Kooten/Courier Press)

By Steve Van Kooten


When someone hears the word “hogback,” they may be tempted to pull out the grill and pick out their favorite barbecue sauces, but that would be a mistake because the Hogback is not a prime cut of tenderloin. In fact, it is one of Wisconsin’s many valued conservation areas.

Designated in 2002 as Wisconsin’s 334th state natural area (SNA), the Hogback is a unique parcel that stretches over more than 970 acres, approximately seven miles northwest of the village of Steuben. Eighty acres of its land are remnant prairies.

Remnant prairies are a globally rare ecological feature, and less than one-tenth of a percent of the state’s prairies remain intact, according to Armund Bartz, a conservation ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation. These prairies are grasslands that have retained native plant communities, and, typically, are untouched by tilling, grading and other agricultural activities.

Bartz explained why remnant prairies like the Hogback are irreplaceable: “They are part of our history, part of our culture, a look back into the past and a potential resource for the future.”

Prairie lands serve as habitats for native species and providing valuable natural resources that cannot be duplicated in other areas.

“They are history books and the source of Wisconsin’s best agricultural soils because deep roots put organic matter deep into the soil profile,” wrote Bartz. “Soils produced in forests only provide organic matter at the top of the soil horizon, and it is shallow (4–8 inches deep) compared to 3–5 feet in prairie-derived soil.”

The Prairie Enthusiasts, a nonprofit conservation organization, discovered the Hogback area in the early 1990s and reported it to the Nature Conservancy. Ownership transitioned to the WDNR in 2008. It is one of nearly 700 SNAs in Wisconsin, which constitute more than 400,000 acres of protected, state-owned land used for research, education and recreation.

But even among these areas, the Hogback stands out for its geographical features, including a 300-foot elevated slope. It’s a rare “island” surrounded by an oxbow previously occupied by the Kickapoo River.

“The Hogback has a substantial east and northeast-facing slope with remnant prairie, which is extremely rare in Wisconsin,” Bartz wrote. Most dry prairies in the region have slopes that face south or southwest. This unusual feature in the Hogback allows plant species to develop greater climate resilience and biodiversity. It also makes some odd neighbors: needle grass and prairie voles may not be too far apart despite their wildly different climate preferences.

The area is home to at least 27 rare species, according to Bartz. Species range from small mammals to reptiles, birds and various insects. Many of these species rely on native areas to survive.

“Similar to the monarch butterfly, there are species (bees, moths, butterflies) on site that will only use a single host plant species, and because those plants are limited to remnant prairies, those invertebrate species are rare as well.”

While the area has benefited from its SNA designation over the last twenty years, it still faces challenges. Bartz wrote that due to the area’s small size, long-term viability is limited, parts of the site have been treeless for thousands of years and 50–100 years of fire suppression have allowed invasive shrubs and trees to overrun pieces of the land.

As part of the conservation efforts of the DNR, the Hogback is subject to prescribed burns, brush removal and grazing agreements with local cattle producers. The DNR also uses strategic planting on more than 300 acres of the site to improve its long-term viability.

Bartz added that these areas increase biodiversity, which leads to more ecological function, more pollination of plants, more food resources for people and flood mitigation areas.

So, in a way, areas like the Hogback sow—not that kind of sow, put the dry rub down—the seeds for a better quality of life for animals and people.

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