On July 14, 2015, two WSO representatives testified publicly on the Environmental Impact Report submitted by Kohler at a two-hour public scoping meeting held by the Department of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan. Speaking for three minutes each were WSO Vice President Michael John Jaeger and Dianne Packett, a member of WSO's Conservation Committee. The following is Diane's testimony.
My name is Dianne Packett. I'm a member of the WSO Conservation Committee, and I am a practicing ornithologist with a master's degree in wildlife science from Purdue University.
I'm focusing my comments on the potential effects of the proposed golf course on rare breeding birds, primarily rare forest birds.
By rare birds, I mean state-listed threatened and endangered species, along with other birds identified in the Wisconsin DNR's Wildlife Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). The Wildlife Action Plan lists species as SGCN if they "have low or declining populations and are in need of conservation action."
We are hampered in reviewing this project's potential effects on rare birds by the protected nature of information on rare species.
An exemption in Wisconsin's Open Records Law restricts public disclosure of information on the locations and populations of threatened and endangered species, and this information has been redacted from the Environmental Impact Report.
Thus, WSO does not have access to information on the occurrence of those bird species that are of most interest to us or which may be at greatest risk from this proposal, but we were able to determine the listed bird species that are known to occur in the area via the DNR's web-based Natural Heritage Inventory County and Township Tool, and the online database eBird.
According to eBird, 20 species of SGCN land-bird species have been observed in the adjacent forests, shrublands, and grasslands of Kohler-Andrae State Park that would be affected by this development.
Based on the county-wide listing from the DNR's Natural Heritage Inventory database, there are four threatened forest songbird species, one threatened forest hawk, and one endangered shorebird that potentially could occur in the project area.
The Environmental Impact Report states in Section 2.1 that under the preferred design for the golf course, 50% of the forest cover will be removed and Section 5.1.3 states that this loss will be irreversible. Figure ES-1 of the report shows that the remaining forest will not be a contiguous block, but will be highly fragmented by the fairways.
It has been known since the 1980s that forest fragmentation is detrimental to many species of breeding forest birds, including SGCN species such as Wood Thrush and Hooded Warbler, both of which are found in the state park.
One detrimental effect is the creation of edge habitat, where nest predators such as raccoons, snakes, possums, skunks, and invasive Brown-headed Cowbirds are more common than in deep woods. The nest success of breeding birds is reduced, the nest fail entirely, or the nests produce cowbird chicks instead of the SGCN species.
In addition, some forest-breeding birds are "area-sensitive": meaning they require a certain size forest block in order to establish a viable territory and breed successfully. One example is the Ovenbird, which may be found singing in small woodland patches but not successfully breeding here.
The Environmental Impact Report states in Section 4.4 that the forest cover remaining after the construction of the course will be comparable to the nearby residential developments. This will negatively impact breeding bird populations in the adjacent Kohler-Andrae State Park , in addition to the effects on the Kohler property itself.
A recent study by the University of Wisconsin, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and USDA Forest Service, currently in press in the Journal of Ecological Applications, found that housing developments that are adjacent to protected lands reduce the number and abundance of species of greatest conservation need and other habitat specialists, although birds associated with human habitation, such as American Robins, increase.
The Kohler forest currently buffers Kohler-Andrae State Park from the effects of housing developments to the north, but construction of the course and its support facilities (clubhouse, maintenance building, rest stations, cart barn, and parking lots) will act like ohter low-intensity development and affect the bird abundance and diversity in the state park.
The Environmental Impact Statement that the DNR prepares on the Kohler project should include a thorough evaluation of the potential impacts to threatened, endangered, and other SGCN birds that breed in the area of Kohler's proposed golf course.
We agree with the DNR's request for information on breeding and migratory bird surveys that may have been conducted as part of the Environmental Impact Report.
We also suggest that conducting formal breeding and migratory bird surveys, following established protocols, within the park and the Kohler forest will help define the species in greatest conservation need that are likely to be impacted by the permanent 50% loss of forest that will accompany course construction.
A formal survey also will suggest potential strategies to modify or mitigate the impact of the proposal if it is eventually approved.
The DNR's assessment should also include a review of the published literature on the habitat needs of SGCN species that breed in or migrate through the area and the impact of the project on that habitat, including the quality of the remaining post-construction forest-species composition, tree age diversity, ground cover, etc.
Finally, we urge the DNR to analyze the cumulative impact of this project on the entire landscape of forest and wetland bird habitat along this important migratory corridor where few intact forests remain.