OXFORD JUNCTION — Bluestem grass sways in a gentle breeze, interspersed between swathes of yellow black-eyed Susans, as bird and cricket song fills the air. Pheasant chicks run in the underbrush, monarchs land on blooming milkweed, and an occasional deer bounds through the prairie.
Two years ago, these 80 acres of emerging native prairie just outside Oxford Junction were covered in soybeans. Now they are set aside for conservation, part of the 450-acre Oxford Junction Wildlife Area, one of the newest additions to Iowa’s public lands.
On the banks of the Wapsipinicon River in southeast Jones County, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources manages the area, which is open to the public and can be used by hunters and people out for walks with their dogs or cameras. A small parking area sits at the end of B Street in Oxford Junction, but there are no trails or facilities — the primary goal here is supporting wildlife.
“It’s important if we want to have wildlife in this state. It’s important for protecting our natural heritage. It’s important to a person to be able to come and get outside,” said Curt Kemmerer, DNR wildlife management biologist.
In addition to helping Iowa’s wildlife and supporting pollinator species vital to the state’s crops, areas such as this can help improve Iowa’s water quality by reducing runoff and the impacts of flooding.
“We only have 2 percent of the state in public ownership for habitat,” Kemmerer said. “If 98 percent of the state is row crops and pavement, I don’t think 2 percent is quite enough, and we can do a little bit better.”
Kemmerer is one of three full-time DNR employees managing 16,500 acres of wildlife areas in this part of the state, spread across 23 areas in six counties.
The new prairie is just a small part of the entire Wildlife Area, which also includes wetlands and forest, though all of it is a new acquisition for the state. The DNR acquired the 450-acre area in three installments, one through the Eastern Iowa Conservation Foundation of Dubuque, which purchased about 80 acres of land and then donated them to the DNR. The DNR purchased the rest of the acres in two parcels and sold at the assessed values of $1,1150 per acre and $1,300 per acre for about $450,000.
Officials hope to add another 66 acres this year. The DNR purchases land with funds from a variety of sources, including fees collected from hunting licenses and from state and national grants and matching funds.
The farmer who was working much of this land in the past had placed some of it in a wetland conservation easement through the federal government some years ago. Part of the Wapsipinicon River flood plain, it was being inundated with water more and more frequently, making it less profitable as farm land. Kemmerer said lost profitability is a common reason landowners look to sell their property to the DNR or county conservation boards.
“Agriculture and conservation have to work in harmony,” he said. “This is Iowa.”
Turning farmland into prairie takes careful planning and management. After the last crops were harvested, the ground was seeded with a prairie plant mix. Then last summer it was mowed to cut down on unwanted weeds. This summer the prairie plants, which are hardy and have evolved for this landscape, have come back and re-established themselves more firmly. It still is young, but as time goes on the biodiversity of the perennial flowers and grasses will increase.
Volunteers planted rows of hedges among the prairie grasses, dogwood and wild plum and other species. There also are a few patches of corn and soybeans, managed by local farmers. Those crops will provide cover and food for animals. The DNR works with a local cattle farmer to graze portions of the prairie — taking over the prairie management role buffalo might have played in a previous era.
“In Iowa, we have less than a 10th of a percent of our true remnant native prairie left. These reconstructions will never get back to that, but it’s the best we can do,” Kemmerer said.
He would like to explore wetland enhancement and reforestation on parts of it, focusing on oaks.
“They’re one of our hallmark tree species here in Iowa. I’m going to go back in time and take a snapshot of what we know we would have had here, pre-settlement,” he said.
In the future, controlled burns will help manage the prairie, clearing dead plants and releasing nutrients back into the soil. Strips of clover are planted to act as a firebreak.
“Fire is a great tool. Prior to settlement, that’s how the ecosystem evolved,” he said. “It sets back plants we don’t want and gives a chance for native species to have a leg up.”
Kemmerer hopes in the future, the area will see bird species like meadowlarks, bobolinks and dickcissels, grassland-dependent birds that rely on prairies.
“A lot of those species are in kind of scary decline because of the loss of habitat,” he said. “But we can see healthy local populations in places like this.”
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