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Pristine environment before settlement?

January 23, 2010
By Garry Brandenburg

History lessons can distort. And that is what does happen, to an extent, when elementary and high school studies paint word pictures of what Iowa was like prior to any white man settlement. It was typical for the idea that a great grassland wilderness needed to be tamed. The implication was also in place that the pre-settlement environment was "pristine", perfect, in balance, and going about life in some sort of idealistic utopia.

Hollywood takes note of the Eden like 'cavorting with canines' theme with films that may portray life on the plains as ideal, peaceful and perfect. That is until settlement and greed took over about 300 years ago and wrought destruction wherever it went. To be factual, there were plenty of successes and failures to go around for every culture that ever inhabited this land for all of the thousands of years of their existence. Fairy tale stories may make movies but it is reality that we must live with day-to-day.

Man-kind, in the land between the two great rivers, had been making modifications to the land for thousands of years. Native Americans could and did make changes to the land to enhance their survival. Across all of the Americas there was a great mix of native peoples stretching to all the horizons. Taken together, their numbers exceeded the population of Europe. With over 1,200 languages, they worked the land and its resources, practiced agriculture with advanced irrigation in some locales, hunted, traded goods, and fought constant battles with the elements and other hostile tribes. Huge communities were built that would rival cities of the old world.

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Pre-settlement accounts of the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers helped to lure white settlers to the area. The accounts held great promise of good land, tall grass and plenty of game, such as bison. Like many advertisements, the potential for success was implied and over simplified. What the ads did not say or specify were the harsh realities of what it would take to survive, let alone 'improve' the land. The land and its environment will always exact its toll on people who cannot adapt, improvise or adjust to what nature offers.

An uninformed public buys into this myth: That the disruption or manipulation of nature is a modern phenomenon only a few centuries old. Everything before that was perfect, all that happened after is somehow imperfect. This leads to great public policy debates over what is right or wrong, and it all depends upon the points of views of the participants.

Prudent use of natural resources does require constant and careful stewardship to gain benefits from the land while still protecting the underlying ability of the land to sustain harvests of crops, timber, fisheries and wildlife. The modern day sciences that deal with natural resource conservation issues have to deal with the realities of today. Management of those resources helps everyone in society. Our survival will always depend upon the land, air and water. Let the history books of tomorrow factually and accurately tell the story of how modern man adapted, improvised and adjusted to improve our ability to survive.


Last week I highlighted this column with a story of local BALD EAGLES. It is true that they have made a magnificent comeback in Iowa. DNR records show at least 245 bald eagle nests in the state. But that is only the known sites. There undoubtedly are other nests tucked away in remote places that are not documented. In 1977, there was exactly one eagle nest in Iowa. We've come a long way.

Eagles have very specific criteria for choosing a nest site. It typically needs to be near water to find fish to eat. The tree needs to be large enough and strong enough to hold a nest that will grow in size each year. A nest of 1,000 pounds worth of sticks and branches is possible. Added to each year, a nest can weigh more than one ton! Eagles prefer to nest away from human activity although some eagles seem to be adapting to us.

Most nests will have two young. Over time, however, only an average of 1.5 chicks survive to fledgling stages and go on to adult life. Reproduction is a slow paced game since it takes 4 to 5 years before the eaglets are adult breeders.


FISH habitat structures are being built as I speak at Sand Lake. A series of pallet complexes have been constructed by the staff of the Marshall County Conservation Board, Marty Malloy and Jeremiah Manken. Once built, they are positioned on the ice near shoreline sites where the intent is have them sink when the ice goes out this spring.

Sand Lake is close to Marshalltown, easy to get to, and easy to launch a canoe or electric powered boat from the boat ramp on its south shore. Since old gravel pits are by nature deep water, in many cases well over 30 feet, the fishes live in the top zone of oxygenated water. That water is typically at about 10 feet or less from the top. Look for the pallet structures along the waters of Sand Lake whenever you are out and about.


ICE on area ponds, lakes, and rivers can have an effect upon the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. We humans cannot see this, but we can test for it. Normally during any spring, summer and fall time, air and water are working their magic. Oxygen levels of 4 parts per million or more are considered very good natural levels.

In the winter, with ice covering the water, and deep snow on top of that, light is restricted from entering the water. Plant materials growing in the water use carbon dioxide, ( a non-pollutant incidentally), and give off oxygen. Heavy snow cover does not allow for light penetration. Light entering the water allows for photosynthesis by plants. Without light, oxygen levels can deteriorate to 3 ppm or less. At three parts per million, fish are starting to get stressed. At two ppm for an extended period of time, fish start to die.

Some northern Iowa lakes now being monitored for oxygen are showing less than 2 ppm from the top to the bottom of the water column. When the DNR crews drop a camera into the water, any fish they find are just sitting there motionless, alive yes, but perky no.

Solutions to add oxygen include aerators. To work effectively they needed to have been installed last fall and kept operational through the winter. If one can, pushing the snow off the ice will allow light to enter the water. Each new snow will need to be removed. Deeper ponds tend to have enough water volume to keep fish alive. Shallow degraded ponds are the most vulnerable.


BIRD watching takes on a whole new level when one prepares a specific site. Such is the case for Ed Siems at his Asher Creek Acres home site. Adjacent to one of his three pond edges, and against a backdrop of heavy pine, brush and nearby prairie grasses, Siems built and set a photo blind to watch pheasants, deer and other critters. With camera in hand from the inside of the camouflaged hut, he can make photographs all day long if he wishes.

The photo blind is a small hut, big enough for two people. A portable heater keeps the inside of the insulated hut toasty warm. Viewing ports allow camera lenses to peek out at unsuspecting wildlife.

Ed Siems will present the story of his wildlife oasis on Thursday evening, Jan 28th at 7 pm. Siems will illustrate his birding site in the country, show photos of his box blind and the wildlife images he was able to capture with his camera at the next BIRD CLUB meeting. The public is welcomed to attend and enjoy winter wildlife photos next Thursday, January 28th at 7 pm at the Fisher Community Center in Marshalltown. In Iowa, you have to make things happen and go where the action is to see wildlife.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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