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An oak savannah west of River Falls. (River Falls Journal photo by Dan Wilcox)

Wild Side: Bipedal hominids enjoy the savanna and the beach

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Many of us enjoy strolling through a park-like setting with scattered trees and grassy ground vegetation. We also enjoy time on a beach. These are common human predilections.

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Savannas are ecosystems with plant communities consisting of open-grown scattered trees with a grassy understory. Savanna ecosystems are transitional communities found between forests and grasslands.

The savanna theory suggests that our hominid ancestors evolved on the dry plains of Africa. The savanna theory suggests that when humans came out of the forest and on to the savanna, walking upright gave them an increased field of vision and freed up hands to use tools.

The aquatic ape theory posits that many things unique to humans such as walking upright, a descended larynx, fat beneath the skin and a large brain can best be explained as evolutionary adaptations to living in an aquatic environment and thriving on a rich seafood diet.

Humans like water. We enjoy swimming pools, buy expensive waterfront property, take trips to the sea or to lakes, and hike on beaches. Most of us take to the water swimmingly.

We are fortunate to live in an area where there are many lakes and rivers and some remaining savanna areas to visit. Midwest oak savannas are among the world’s most threatened ecosystems. Oak savanna once covered about 30 million acres in the Midwest. Nearly all the oak savanna area has been lost to agriculture, fire suppression and over-grazing.

Savannas were communities bordered by prairies to the west and deciduous hardwood forest to the east. They were maintained by frequent fires and possibly by grazing by bison, deer and elk. Oaks were the dominant trees.

The St. Croix Valley Chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust and the Wisconsin DNR have been working for years to protect and restore oak savanna remnants in this area.

There are oak savanna remnants in Willow River and Kinnickinnic state parks, on some of the DNR wildlife management areas, at Blueberry Hill on the St. Croix River bluff south of Bayport, and around the Foster Cemetery and along Rocky Branch in River Falls. The St. Croix Chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts has also been restoring oak savanna areas on a number of private properties.

Restoring an oak savanna isn’t easy. It involves clearing brush and burning to allow native prairie grasses and forbs to again become the dominant ground vegetation. The Prairie Enthusiasts have been working hard to suppress the highly invasive common buckthorn in the Foster Conservation Reserve in River Falls.

When out pheasant hunting last weekend I enjoyed hiking through a hilltop oak savanna area under restoration on DNR land west of River Falls. The views were sublime, the fall colors were beautiful and the old bur oaks looked spooky. I was a happy bipedal hominid at home on the savanna.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at rfjsports@rivertowns.net.

--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist

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