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Large-scale Conservation in the Midwest: the Lower Iowa River Habitat Complex
Midwest Region, January 7, 2013
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The 2,606-acre Horseshoe Bend Division of the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge is located on the floodplain of the Iowa River. This portion of the floodplain is reconnected to the river through breaches in an abandoned agricultural levee.
The 2,606-acre Horseshoe Bend Division of the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge is located on the floodplain of the Iowa River. This portion of the floodplain is reconnected to the river through breaches in an abandoned agricultural levee. - Photo Credit: Alex Galt/USFWS
This aerial photo shows the close proximity and connectivity between the publicly and privately owned habitats. The lines between public and private lands are blurred when neighbors work together. The private wetland complex and two circled areas are habitat improvement projects that are being completed through the Partners Program.
This aerial photo shows the close proximity and connectivity between the publicly and privately owned habitats. The lines between public and private lands are blurred when neighbors work together. The private wetland complex and two circled areas are habitat improvement projects that are being completed through the Partners Program. - Photo Credit: Alex Galt/USFWS
These private habitats were restored and enhanced through the Partners Program directly adjacent to the Louisa Division of Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge.
These private habitats were restored and enhanced through the Partners Program directly adjacent to the Louisa Division of Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: Alex Galt/USFWS
Most of the landowners in the LIRHC are interested in wildlife habitat for recreational purposes, such as upland game, waterfowl, and deer hunting.
Most of the landowners in the LIRHC are interested in wildlife habitat for recreational purposes, such as upland game, waterfowl, and deer hunting. - Photo Credit: Alex Galt/USFWS
Future work in southeast Iowa will consist of identifying additional strategic focus areas along the Iowa and Cedar Rivers.
Future work in southeast Iowa will consist of identifying additional strategic focus areas along the Iowa and Cedar Rivers. - Photo Credit: Alex Galt/USFWS

Midwestern states rarely come to mind when considering the concept of large-scale or landscape level conservation, yet there are actually many examples of resource managers looking beyond the farm or refuge, and considering the matrix in which their properties lie. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners have been working together in southeast Iowa to develop a large-scale conservation strategy to put the right habitat on-the-ground, in the right places. In states like Iowa where approximately 98% of land is privately owned, it is even more important to consider the matrix surrounding protected lands.

The Service is able to do this through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. This flexible program allows the Service to work with interested private landowners to restore and enhance fish and wildlife habitats on their properties by providing them technical and financial assistance. To guide the program at the regional level, the Service, its partners and stakeholders developed a Strategic Plan that consists of geographic focus areas for prioritizing large-scale conservation efforts.

To step down this plan or move from a “landscape level conversation” to actually putting habitat on-the-ground, local Partners biologists must look within these larger focus areas and identify places that they can impact wildlife the most. The Lower Iowa River Habitat Complex, located in southeastern Iowa at the confluence of the Iowa River and the Mississippi River, was identified within the Southeastern Iowa Lowland Focus Area because of a high density of protected lands and the potential for partnerships. 

Three divisions of the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge, multiple state wildlife management areas, Louisa County Conservation Board lands and a variety of conservation easements total more than 17,000 acres of land protected in perpetuity within this 25,000-acre strategic focus area. It supports a diversity of habitat types including bottomland hardwood forest, savanna, mesic tallgrass prairie, wet meadow and emergent marsh. This complex of habitats provides crucial breeding and stop-over sites for over 278 species of migratory birds. 

An initial scoping meeting was held to not only gauge the interest of Lower Iowa River Habitat Complex conservation partners but also to learn about prior restoration efforts, important habitat considerations, and opportunities to collaborate. This meeting was an important first step. Since the focus area is located on the floodplains of the Iowa and Mississippi Rivers, a purist restoration approach would focus on restoring only floodplain forest to the area to reflect the likely habitat type that existed prior to Euro-American settlement. Open prairie habitats were typically limited to the higher parts of the landscape, out of the floodplains, that had higher fire frequencies and intensities. Economic pressures and social norms now have a greater influence on the distribution of habitats than natural disturbance regimes in highly modified landscapes. Consequently, wildlife habitat tends to be consolidated to the floodplains in southeast Iowa where land is less suitable for crop production. Resource managers must seek to provide the appropriate habitat types for all species in these areas. Despite the consolidation and change from historic vegetation patterns, this paradigm can be effective. 

Another result of this meeting was the recognition of the importance of the Partners Program for filling in the gaps between the protected lands in the privately owned matrix of the Complex. Only about 6.5% of the area is currently in row crop production leaving the remaining lands ineligible for well-known Farm Bill programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program. Most of the landowners in the area use their properties for recreational purposes (primarily hunting), they are often conservation minded, but they also have management limitations. The Partners Program helps these landowners overcome their limitations and meet their goals while still putting high quality habitat on-the-ground for federal trust species. Identifying key landowners to work with was a vital step that allowed us to gain credibility with neighbors and gain momentum locally. 

The insight and recommendations from our partners was the catalyst that initiated projects and discussions with more than 10 landowners in a year. The projects were varied and included invasive species control, wetland restorations/enhancements, and prescribed burning. A mutualistic approach that considers individual goals, within the framework of a shared vision, is often the most effective way to implement large-scale initiatives. This allows resource managers to expand their conservation efforts beyond the boundaries of protected lands. Although the Lower Iowa River Habitat Complex is unique in many respects, there are other places to apply variations of the “Reserves-as-Catalysts” model for large-scale conservation throughout the Midwest. 

Learn more about the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program here in the Midwest by visiting us online: www.fws.gov/midwest/partners/

 

 


Contact Info: Alexander Galt, (320)589-4001, alexander_galt@fws.gov



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