The Buena Vista and Leola State Wildlife Areas represent one of Wisconsin?s largest grassland management areas. The landscape is open and largely treeless. Approximately 25% of the total acreage is in permanent grassland. The primary land uses are wildlife conservation, hunting, and agriculture. Vegetative cover types include cool and warm-season grasses, grazed pasture and row crops, prairie, oldfield, shrublands and woodland. Land ownership is spread between the state, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.
These two properties form the core of the Greater Prairie-Chicken range in Wisconsin and contain about half of the remaining population of this species. This area is central to the Greater Prairie-Chicken recovery effort (Warnke 2005) and also is a priority site for many other grassland birds, offering one of the best opportunities in the state for landscape-scale management of grassland species and habitat (Sample and Mossman 1997). Numerous grassland birds have robust populations here, including Henslow?s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and Western Meadowlark. Also breeding here are Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson?s Snipe, Short-eared Owl, Sedge Wren, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, and Brewer?s Blackbird. Brown Thrashers and Willow Flycatchers can be found in shrubby areas. During spring, if snow melt is sufficient, migrant waterfowl sometimes are numerous as well. Short-eared Owls and many Rough-legged Hawks often are present in winter, as are Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. Occasionally, rare raptors such as Snowy Owl and Gyrfalcon are seen.
The Buena Vista/Leola grasslands truly are a Wisconsin ornithological touchstone. Fred and Fran Hamerstrom, their many students, and numerous field workers did decades-long studies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken here, and Fran did her studies of the Northern Harrier here, all chronicled in many scientific papers, Department of Natural Resources reports, and multiple groundbreaking books (Anderson 1969; Hamerstrom 1980,1986; Hamerstrom and Hamerstrom 1973). This rich history and commitment to Greater Prairie-Chicken conservation and management has continued into the twenty-first century with the development of the Central Wisconsin Grassland Conservation Area Partnership, a landscape-level project aimed at creating and maintaining enough habitat to sustain populations of all of the grassland-dependent bird species that breed here. The Buena Vista/Leola grasslands face numerous threats including habitat fragmentation, succession of open areas to woodland, conversion to more intensive irrigated row-crop agriculture, and residential development.