TOWN OF ROCK

Travel back in time about 13,000 years to when the receding glacier left mounds of sand and gravel here in southern Wisconsin.

Over the millennia, plants evolved to thrive on this quick-draining soil, followed by bison and other grazers. The first peoples probably followed the game or the rivers into this area.

French explorers named the grasslands prairie. Europeans began to settle and farm the area in the 1800s.

Over the next 100-plus years, plows and pavement destroyed most of the prairie.

A few scraps remain.

Most of them have been identified, so finding 40 acres of it in Rock County was a surprise to longtime prairie preservation activists.

“This is a time capsule, is what this is,” said an excited Kevin Kawula last week as he walked a prairie remnant he discovered along County G south of Janesville, noting the wide variety of prairie plants that appeared at every turn.

Kawula is a volunteer coordinator for the Rock County Conservationists who also works with Green Rock Audubon Society and The Prairie Enthusiasts. He had permission from the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin, which recently bought the land along Prairie Road and plans to build its new headquarters there.

Along for the tour was Nathan Gingerich of Applied Ecological Services of Brodhead and a Gazette photographer and reporter.

Most prairie remnants are less than 10 acres, and very few exceed 50 acres, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

A short list of the plants dotting the prairie grasses here: whorled milkweed; harebell; blue vervain; fringed puccoon; purple prairie clover; Illinois tick trefoil and bergamot, also known as beebalm, which has become popular with gardeners who want to attract bees and butterflies.

“This is all marble seed,” Kawula said excitedly as he stood in a small opening surrounded by bushes as five monarchs flitted around him.

There’s also one plant that is listed as endangered in Wisconsin, Hill’s thistle.

Kawula and Gingerich walked through thick brush to a grassy knoll.

“This is exceedingly rare to find,” Kawula said of the little hilltop because it was filled with prairie plants and no “weeds.”

The land is rich with a wide variety of prairie plants, Gingerich said.

“This would be very hard for a person to achieve by restoration,” Gingerich said. “… You kind of expect to find a few of these species in a pasture somewhere, but this is pretty impressive.”

“I think it’s pretty exciting to find something natural still hanging on in our modern Rock County world, especially in the quarry district,” Kawula said, referring to the sand-and-gravel operations a short distance down the road.

Kawula noticed the hilly land recently. He was driving by when he saw telltale signs that maybe a prairie remnant was hiding there.

He saw cattle grazing across Prairie Road, and he knew that land too hilly for plowing often was used for grazing, and grazing meant the prairie had a chance to survive.

So Kawula found aerial photographs of the area and researched historical records going back to 1834. One photograph showed a different coloration than surrounding farmland, another hint that prairie plants were there. The native plants hold their green when non-natives turn brown in the summer.

Buckthorn and other invasive trees and bushes are encroaching on the prairie plants, but Kawula believes the prairie will return if the brush is cleared.

“Between the prairie, the wildflowers and a little tree called the Iowa crabapple, it’s a really nice place,” Kawula enthused.

The Iowa crabapple is the only native American crab, he said.

Kawula hopes to give a formal presentation to the humane society, with a recommendation of where to build and how to help the prairie remnant to survive.

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