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A western Iowa wildlife area unveils plan to take a ‘hands-on’ approach to forest management

Katie Peikes
IPR file

A wildlife management area in western Iowa is shifting its approach to conservation of its woodland.

The Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area has proposed a new forest stewardship plan for its more than 2,600 acres in Monona County. It’s just one of many wildlife areas across the state that are working to actively map out strategies to protect and attract a wide range of different species.

“It’s super serious, the responsibility we have today to be caretakers and stewards of the natural resources we have for the future,” said Doug Chafa, wildlife biologist and one of creators of the stewardship plan. “Part of that is putting it down on paper and making sure it all works out.”

Chafa said there’s a need for greater age diversity in the western Iowa woods. Surveys of the land have shown that some species of trees, like bur oak, are all a similar age — which means they will die out at a similar time.

United States Forest Service data shows the state of Iowa is losing an average of over 5,000 acres of oak forest each year, due to old oaks dying out without springing up a new generation of trees.

In the past, the wildlife area’s conservation practice consisted of acquiring land and effectively letting the forests grow naturally. However, it hasn’t been enough to keep the population of oak trees from diminishing throughout the state.

“We realized you can’t just take your hands off the wheel and do no management to take care of these wildlife areas if you want to provide the right kind of habitat for certain species that need that,” said Joe Herring, an Iowa forester.

“It’s gonna be so worth it when your kids, and your grandkids and their kids have a healthy native timber to enjoy. The bigger picture is that all the work they’re pouring into their lifetime is going to ensure that forest is better for the next.”
Sarah Rueger, Iowa forestry specialist

Herring said there’s been a gradual shift, beginning in the mid-2000s, towards active forest management on public lands in Iowa. Foresters are using techniques like forest thinning, timber harvesting and planting new seeds in order to optimize the amount of wildlife one forest can accommodate.

In the newly introduced conservation plan, Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area will split the land area into 192 sections, or what foresters call ‘stands,' and give each unique area a different proscription.

Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area
Iowa DNR
This map outlines how the over 2,000 acres of Loess Hills' wildlife area will be managed using forest stewardship. Each number demarks a different section of land for which foresters will monitor and recommend action.

Chafa said this will allow for different areas of the forest to provide refuge for different species. Some areas with newer tree growth and shrubs will help attract more birds, like woodcock and quail. Other areas will ensure dead hollow trees remain to allow for a habitat for bats.

“These little nuances are these little habitat niches. If we do nothing, and all the forest goes to that older age class, we lose those spaces or habitats,” he said.

Western Iowa forestry specialist Sarah Rueger said since the life span of trees can exceed 100 years, it can be a challenge to see all the benefits of the work right away. But, looking 30, 50 or even 100 years into the future is vital for preserving forests.

“It’s gonna be so worth it when your kids, and your grandkids and their kids have a healthy native timber to enjoy.” she said. “The bigger picture is that all the work they’re pouring into their lifetime is going to ensure that forest is better for the next.”

The western Iowa wildlife area used other parts of the state, like northeast Iowa, as a model for how to craft a long-term forestry plan. Thirty nine other conservation areas have instituted active conservation strategies out of the hundreds of wildlife management areas throughout the state.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is aiming to institute forest stewardship plans in the remaining areas within the next couple of years.

Herring said most of Iowa’s nearly 3 million acres of forests are not yet being actively managed. But, through outreach to private landowners and more education on forest stewardship, he hopes to see that change.

“Habitat management and conservation is not just something you do one time,” Herring said. “It’s a long term product of good habits over a long period of time.”

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.