If you’re yearning for a home where the buffalo roam, central Wisconsin is not likely the place you have in mind. Indeed, you won’t see true wild buffalo here—those animals are actually native to Africa and Asia. But Brewster Higley likely had North American bison in mind when he penned the words to that treasured old Western tune, and you can see wild bison at Sandhill Wildlife Area in Babcock. You can also see deer, coyotes, a wide range of small mammals and amphibians, and an abundance of birds including the tall and graceful Sandhill cranes for which the area is known.
Located on Oakdale Electric Cooperative’s lines, Sandhill Wildlife Area is one of three managed State Wildlife Areas that comprise the Sandhill-Meadow Valley Work Unit, which covers a total of 90,000 acres of state-managed public land. Sandhill contributes 9,634 acres to that total, 9,150 of which are enclosed within a deer-proof fence.
“Sandhill is pretty unique because of that fence,” said Quinn Brownell, natural resources educator for Sandhill Wildlife Area. He explained that the contained acreage is an ideal space for the various conservation and wildlife research projects and demonstrations that are ongoing at Sandhill.
However, the fence is meant to help manage the wildlife within—not to keep the public out.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we are a public facility. The fence can look a bit intimidating, but people can just come through the gate at the entrance. Anyone can come into the property,” Brownell said, adding that the area is not a state park and is therefore free to enter.
Sandhill is open daily and mostly accessible year-round, weather permitting. There’s something different to see and experience in every season, but autumn brings an especially unique opportunity. As waterfowl begin to prepare for their winter migration, the wetland areas within Sandhill become particularly active.
Brownell explained for about two to three weeks in the fall—typically mid to late October is the peak time—Sandhill cranes are busy foraging in the surrounding fields to prepare for their migration south for the winter. They forage during the day and swoop back down to the wetlands at dusk to roost before taking off the next morning in search of more food. An observation tower overlooking Gallagher Marsh within the Sandhill fence offers a stunning view of the cranes’ activity.
“This is when we do our crane surveys,” Brownell said. “Last year we counted 3,000 Sandhill cranes in one night, and that was actually a low number. Our average count is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. I would encourage anyone to come to the property in the fall, before the Trumpeter Trail closes, and come at dusk. All the Sandhill cranes you’ll see is really something.”
Home of the Granges
Sandhill Wildlife Area’s backstory is also something special. Located within the sandy bed of a glacial lake, the area is defined by swaths of wetlands interspersed with pockets of wooded uplands. In the 1900s, farmers dug drainage ditches in hopes of coaxing out some cropland from the marshy terrain, disrupting much of the native wildlife.
A combination of factors, including high drainage taxes and the Great Depression, eventually drove many of the farmers from the depleted land. In the 1930s, a biologist named Wallace Grange and his wife, Hazel, purchased 9,460 acres of this abandoned, tax-delinquent land, enclosed much of it within an 8-foot deer-proof fence, and established the Sandhill Game Farm.
A contemporary of Aldo Leopold, Grange employed multiple conservation measures on the property, restoring the wetlands and managing the habitat to boost the native wildlife. He shipped deer and grouse to other parts of the country where their populations had been depleted. The couple sold the property to the State of Wisconsin in 1962, specifying that it be used as a wildlife demonstration area.
The Granges’ presence can be felt throughout Sandhill today. The conservation measures they practiced and that the State of Wisconsin has built on over the years have resulted in a diverse landscape that supports a huge variety of wildlife, including many threatened and endangered species that depend on Sandhill’s carefully managed habitat.
The wooden deer fence the Granges installed has long since been updated, but it follows the same border that the couple established. The little cabin on the marsh edge where Wallace and Hazel wrote three conservation-themed books between them is still there, accessible by Sandhill’s newest hiking trail—the Wallace Grange Interpretive Trail. Interpretive displays along this trail and elsewhere along the property tell the Granges’ story.
Even the bison herd—a visitors’ favorite—is genetically linked to the original herd the Granges brought here. Today’s herd is kept to a manageable size of about 15 bison that roam freely in their own 260-acre enclosed pasture. An observation tour along pathway in front of the bison enclosure makes it easier for visitors to spot them.
The public can experience Sandhill Wildlife Area in several different ways. A unique recreational feature of Sandhill is the Trumpeter Trail Auto Tour, a 14-mile, one-way vehicle route that winds through the fenced-in property. A kiosk at the entrance gate offers maps and brochures explaining the various natural features inside the fence; visitors need only to self-register at the kiosk, open the gate and close it behind them once they’ve entered, and then enjoy a peaceful, scenic drive along the well-marked auto path.
Interpretive signs along the Trumpeter Trail help visitors understand what they’re seeing, and there are places along the route to park the car and hop out for a closer look, a snack break at one of the occasional picnic areas, a walk along one of the five hiking trails that can be accessed along the Trumpeter Trail, or a climb up one of the two observation towers for a bird’s-eye view of either the bison pasture or the Gallagher Marsh. The Trumpeter Trail is open to vehicle traffic daily, generally from sunrise to sunset, spring through fall, weather permitting.
Those who choose to explore Sandhill by foot or bicycle can enter through one of two walk-in gates, including one at the entrance by the kiosk. These gates are open all year, allowing for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing during the winter, although trails are not groomed in the winter.
Waterfowl, upland bird, and small game hunting is also allowed within the fence according to specific Sandhill Wildlife Area regulations that closely align—but are not identical to—state hunting regulations. Daily permits are required for hunting.
In addition, guests can explore the Sandhill property by way of one of the many group activities that are open to the public. Sandhill has an Outdoor Skills Center where it hosts a variety of workshops throughout the year. Educational activities are sponsored and supported by Friends of Sandhill, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting wildlife education at Sandhill.
The wide range of program topics includes learning to hunt, foraging for wild edibles, wild game cooking, wilderness first aid, and holiday wreath-making. Other activities include a candlelight hike in the winter, a summer bike tour, and the popular October crane watch. Registration is required for all programs, and a fee may be required for any materials.
However you choose to experience it, Sandhill Wildlife Area offers a peaceful escape from the commotion of modern life. A visit here is likely to satisfy that longing for a home where (apologies to Brewster Higley) the bison roam.—Mary Erickson
Sandhill Wildlife Area is located at 1715 County Hwy X, Babcock, WI 54413. Entrance is free but donations are appreciated. For more information, visit dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Lands/WildlifeAreas/sandhill or call 715-884-2437. For more information about a class, or to register for a class, call 715-884-6335.