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To form an alliance of concerned citizens, landowners, and public and private organizations to protect and improve the water quality and natural habitats in the Ulao Creek Watershed.
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The Ulao Creek Partnership, formed in 1995, is a well-established and focused alliance of  concerned citizens, landowners, and public and private organizations dedicated to protecting and improving the water quality and natural habitats in the Ulao Creek Watershed of Ozaukee County.

Habitat Help

Study aims to save critters' watershed homes

of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: April 21, 2001

T own of Grafton - Warm spring rains and mild temperatures earlier this month were signals to crawling, slithering and hopping creatures that it was time to get on with life.

As salamanders, turtles, snakes and frogs in the Ulao Creek watershed emerged from hibernation, a legion of volunteers was waiting to note their presence and habitat preferences.

The volunteers are combing Ozaukee County's Ulao Creek with an eye toward identifying homes of rare species in need of protection.

The information will help landowners in planning future developments, said Ginny Plumeau, president of Cedarburg Science and a member of the Ulao Creek Partnership that has organized the effort.

The group's amphibian and reptile search, known as a herptile inventory, is part of an ongoing Ulao Creek restoration and management project. The local landowners, county and state agencies, and researchers participating in the partnership expect to prepare a watershed land-use plan in a few years.

"Our land-use plan will say that here are the two, or 50, sites that could host rare critters and then we can recommend protective measures, such as a purchase of development rights or conservation easement or even restoration of wetlands," Plumeau said.

"The goal of this work is not to block development but to locate the habitats critical for survival of these species, their breeding ponds and nesting sites, and inform the landowners."

Their work, which will continue through October, requires wading into ponds or standing in the shin-deep muck of swamp forests in search of a wild crowd.

"Hot spots of diversity or abundance will be marked on maps to help identify those areas that are most important for protection and management efforts in the future," said Gary Casper, manager of herpetology collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

In addition to common amphibians, such as leopard and green frogs, Casper and the team of researchers organized by the Ulao Creek Partnership also are seeking rare species in the watershed.

If they find Blanding's turtles or Butler's garter snakes - both threatened with extinction in Wisconsin - then their homes, too, will be marked on maps.

Another of the rare animals they hope to encounter are spotted salamanders, which are generally found only in small, isolated groups in this rapidly developing region of the state, according to Casper, the project's technical adviser.

Underpasses for wildlife

Recommendations could include the construction of wildlife underpasses, such as a culvert, when local roads that bisect the watershed are rebuilt in the future, Casper said.

On a recent rain-drenched evening, he identified leopard and green frogs, toads and even a few uncommon wood frogs, on roadsides. A few dozen of their cousins already had been flattened by vehicle tires.

As more and more subdivisions are built within the watershed, however, increasing traffic likely will yield more amphibian casualties.

"This high mortality could easily be prevented with wildlife tunnels," he said.

Ulao Creek drains a narrow stretch of land between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, generally south of Sauk Road in the Town of Grafton and north of Highland Road in Mequon.

To the east, the watershed boundary is framed by Highway C. The western boundary includes Highway W north of Highway 32, Cheyenne Ave., and River Bend Road.

The creek drops nearly 150 feet in elevation from the watershed's northernmost reaches to the stream's confluence with the Milwaukee River south of Bonniwell Road in Mequon.

During the second week of April, Casper and several project volunteers set traps in ponds and swamp forests from one end of the 8.5-mile-long creek to the other.

The traps, which are two funnel-shaped pieces of plastic or metal hooked together, do not kill the animals. And they are tied to willow shrubs, tree branches or trunks to ensure they are not fully submerged.

Volunteers check the traps daily, note the species, and then release their prey back to the wild.

Adult breeding salamanders were not cooperating in the early weeks of the survey.

But plenty of minnows and frog tadpoles were taken captive, temporarily.

Past the dead end of Stonecroft Drive, on the eastern edge of the 490-acre Ulao swamp, lie the headwaters of the creek. There, Mike Grisar and Randy Hetzel found numerous mud minnows, identified by the black spots at the base of a rounded tail, water beetles and the tadpoles of green frogs.

Other traps enclosed brook sticklebacks, a minnow species, and small black bullheads. The presence of the bullheads, however, does not bode well for salamanders. The fish are predators of young salamanders, Hetzel said.

Migrating birds on view

Fieldwork in the watershed also offers close-up views of migrating birds, from the tall great white herons to the northern shovelers spotted by another volunteer, Sheri Mount.

Teal, mallards, canvasback, wood ducks and grebe also are passing through at this time of year, taking advantage of the numerous ponds and flooded forests in the watershed, according to Grisar, manager of the herpetologic survey project.

A separate bird survey will count the species that pass over the area and those that nest here.

Hetzel spots kinglets, brown creepers and warblers as he moves between aquatic traps.

The birds take flight when researchers come too close, however, prompting Casper to comment on the relative immobility of amphibians and reptiles.

"They have small activity ranges," Casper said. "Herptiles are entirely dependent on local management of their habitat, more so than birds, which can fly a mile or so to a new habitat."

Tiger salamanders live in open ponds.

Blue spotted salamanders, which are common here, prefer wet areas beneath a closed canopy of mature trees.

The uncommon spotted salamanders are forest creatures, too, but less tolerant of human disturbances than the blue spotted, Casper said.

Both must inhabit a patch of hardwood swamp that provides a diverse landscape to accommodate each stage in its life cycle.

In spring, there must be an ephemeral, or temporary, wetland without fish where it can lay eggs away from fish predators, he said. By fall, it is looking for an upland site, near water, for its winter den.

Such vernal pools adjacent to Bonniwell Road could harbor the rare spotted salamanders, Casper said. Those ponds are home to fairy shrimp, a favorite food of the amphibians.

If children living in the watershed bring home a trophy frog, salamander or turtle, families are encouraged to call Plumeau at Cedarburg Science. The telephone number is (262) 376-0735. Casper or other volunteers would like to document each species before they are released.

Woodland restoration planned

The Ulao Creek Partnership also plans to restore several woodland areas this year by planting trees and shrubs at several demonstration sites, said county conservationist Andy Holschbach. The first planting is scheduled for Saturday.

Another piece of the creek management project is an inventory of the plant communities in the Ulao swamp, south of Port Washington, at the headwaters of the stream.

Jill Hewitt, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee biological sciences graduate student, will continue walking through the swamp this summer to document plant species at 80 sites.

One of Hewitt's goals is to explain how human disturbances, from drainage ditches and roads to mining and tree cutting, have changed the face of the area. Prior to settlement of the region, surveyors found a conifer swamp of cedars and tamaracks.

Today, there are no conifers, and the swamp is a mosaic of various types of hardwood and shrub dominated wetlands, Hewitt said.


Three separate inventories - amphibians and reptiles, birds, and the Ulao swamp plant communities - will be summarized by the Ulao Creek Partnership in a publication.

The first draft could be completed by this May, but a longer version likely will be printed a year from now.

This spring's edition of the "Flora and Fauna of Ulao Creek Watershed" will be distributed at a field day and open house scheduled for May 17. From 3 to 6 p.m. that day, area residents are invited to observe turtle trapping and water quality monitoring in ponds on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property along Ulao Parkway.

After 6:30 p.m., the partnership will hold an open house to discuss the creek management project at the Town of Grafton Hall, 1230 11th Ave.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April 22, 2001.