Of the 103 acres, it currently has 7 acres of good quality dry & dry-mesic remnant prairie, 6 acres of unplowed mesic prairie sod over-grown by trees & brush and severely degraded by grazing, 11 acres of cold water trout stream and stream bank habitat, 2 acres of degraded spring seeps, ephemeral pond, and organic (peat/muck) wet soil, and lastly 36 acres of Federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grassland.
At the time of the original land survey in 1832, the preserve was entirely prairie, including sedge meadow in the wettest areas. The property is traversed from north to south by William’s Creek, and there are several areas of ground water discharge (seeps), including a small ephemeral pond, where the valley floor meets the uplands. In the SE corner of the preserve, the land rises quickly to over 100 ft above the valley bottom. This high ground is where the prairie sod is located. The substrate is composed of Platteville and Galena dolomites, with a band of St. Peter’s sandstone near the base of the slope. The latter formation is exposed at the surface in places. The soils across the Property are predominantly silty to silt loam in texture. There is a layer of thin silt loam on the high ground and deep (> 4 ft thick) silty alluvium in the valley bottom. There is a deposit of wet organic (peat/muck) soil east of the stream that is approximately 2 acres in size.
The preserve is significance for its remnant prairie vegetation and associated rare insects, and as wildlife habitat at both local and state levels. In fact, it may play a critical role in prairie ecosystem conservation in Wisconsin, for it lies within the 50,000-acre Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area (MRPHA). The MRPHA has been identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as one of the best opportunities in the state for prairie/grassland conservation on a landscape scale. Due to the area’s importance, there is a formal partnership of over a dozen public and private conservation organizations and agencies focusing resources into the MRPHA in an attempt to maintain and restore prairie and grassland habitat within a matrix of working farmland. The MRPHA currently supports critical habitat for many grassland dependent birds such as western meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, Henslow sparrows, dickcissels, bobolinks, northern harriers, and upland sandpipers that have been in decline in recent decades, . It is also home to a major concentration of the state-endangered regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) which requires large tracts of prairie sod, as well as many other rare and endangered prairie insects and plants.
Specifically, the Shea Prairie is part of a sub area within the MRPHA called the Mounds View Prairie Complex, which is one of the three most significant concentrations of prairie sod and grassland bird habitat within the MRPHA. The Shea Prairie Preserve is immediately adjacent to, or within 1/4 mile of, important tracts of high quality prairie remnants with rare and declining species and extensive acres of grasslands enrolled in CRP. The property connects to the 276-acre A to Z tract which was recently protected by TNC, and is soon to be transferred to TPE for management. With continued restoration and management, the Shea Prairie’s 62 acres will provide important habitat for many area-sensitive grassland birds and other rare and declining prairie species.
Much of the high ground in the SE corner of the property is too rocky and thin-soiled to have been tilled. Thus, it supports original unplowed prairie sod which ranges from dry to mesic in soil moisture on W and NW facing aspects. The remnant sod is in varying stages of degradation due to both brush/tree invasion in recent decades and past livestock grazing. However, grazing has been absent for at least 32 years, and approximately half the prairie sod (the drier half of the moist spectrum) has rebounded to a state of moderate to good quality prairie vegetation. In the past few years, the recovery has been accelerated by active management through a management. The remainder of the original unplowed prairie sod is dry-mesic to mesic in nature, and is extremely degraded by heavy tree/brush invasion and past grazing. The most level portion of this area may have been plowed a long time ago, but there is no cleared evidence of old plow lines to confirm this.
Based on original land survey records and current conditions, the entire bottomland of the preserve was likely mesic to wet prairie with pockets of sedge meadow at the time of settlement. Most of it is retired cropland, seeded in brome, that has been enrolled in the CRP. The stream running through the property supports trout and is of very good water quality according to a Biotic Index based on stream invertebrates collected by the DNR. It has areas of sand and gravel bottom, and rock riffles, with natural oxbows present. There is some very limited native wet prairie and sedge meadow vegetation along parts of the stream and in a few of the wettest pockets away from the stream. Some of these pockets have organic soil, with native wetland vegetation starting to reestablish, and a small ephemeral pond with breeding frogs (chorus frogs, spring peepers, Cope’s gray treefrogs, and toads) in the spring. Willow and other tree invasion has been occurring along the stream over the past 50 or more years. Along the east edge of the lowland where it meets the uplands, there is a small area of raised peat that appears to have been a perched a fen. Now, it is overgrown with boxelder and is beginning to oxidize. Some bluejoint grass, Jacob’s ladder, and a few other fen associates are still evident, but extremely limited. There is another small groundwater discharge area near the base of the north end of the prairie remnant hill, with sedges and other wet meadow species reestablishing. The entire bottomland area has great potential as grassland bird habitat, and, with prairie restoration, it will eventually provide critical refuge for the state-endangered regal fritillary butterflies during dry years. The property’s cold water stream and spring/seep wetland areas are significant for the MRPHA, for they provide important habitat diversity to this generally dry upland landscape.
Thorough biological surveys of the property have yet to be done, but some information is available. Birds observed at the site include the State-Threatened Bell’s vireo and various other grass & brush land species such as woodcock, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, sedge wren, field sparrow, brown thrasher, willow flycatcher, clay-colored sparrow, and the Northern shrike. Three state-listed plant species have been found: prairie turnip, Richardson’s sedge, and Hill’s thistle. There are strong displays of rough blazingstar, hoary puccoon, shooting star, and cream Baptisia on the better remnant sod. The state-threatened regal fritillary butterfly moved onto the property two years ago, from adjacent land, as trees and brush were removed and fire reintroduced.