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Couple starts nonprofit dedicated to wildlife sanctuary

Liz Martin/The Gazette via AP
Colleen Koss stands on a patio overlooking a pond in Amana.

AMANA — When Colleen Koss walks through the 100 acres of property she and her husband Duane Koss own on the outskirts of Amana, she knows the wooded land is not just meant for their family.

“It’s very peaceful out here for me, and I think for other people,” she told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “And I want to give back. Our passion is being stewards of people and animals and God’s gift to us. We’ve been given this to be stewards of it, so let’s do it.”

That’s why the couple started Wishes for Wildlife, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving their land as a wildlife sanctuary and a place where others can come to experience nature.

The couple’s land is split between two nearby properties. One is virgin timber, she said, which they largely leave alone except for some maintenance and some planting.

The larger property, 70 to 80 acres named Whitetail Ridge, is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, which means it provides food, water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young. The National Wildlife Federation offers the certification, which anyone can apply for.

Trails through the woods, mostly used by animals, crisscross the property. Bat boxes and wood duck boxes create shelters in the woods and along the ponds.

They regularly see deer, turkeys, eagles, flying squirrels, ducks and geese. Mink frequent their ponds, and songbirds crowd bird feeders near the main house. An aerator keeps the pond nearest the house open throughout the winter, so the fish below the surface have enough oxygen.

“Anybody can do it, you don’t have to have 100 acres, just a backyard,” Colleen said.

They planted more than 200 trees this year, all nut or fruit-bearing trees for wildlife. Colleen has applied for grants to help their efforts, securing funding from Aureon and South Slope to help create wildlife food plots. Green browsing food plots are planted with white and red clover, alfalfa, turnips and radishes, all in accordance with DNR guidelines. They’ve also planted apple, peach, walnut, hackberry and hardwood cherries, all for the animals to eat. Salt and mineral blocks are scattered throughout the timber.

They started all this after noticing deer chewing bark off trees, and the efforts have grown from there.

Though Colleen has a sizable garden near her house, she said for the most part the deer leave it alone, as they do the tree bark, now that they have plenty to eat elsewhere on the land.

They also practice timber stand improvement, taking out invasive trees that can crowd the forest floor, giving beneficial trees like oak more room to grow.

“You identify a mature tree and eliminate the trees around it in a 20-foot radius, which allows it to grow bigger, faster and produce more acorns.

Whitetail Ridge includes three ponds, including one where they host wedding ceremonies.

“I like being part of people’s happy days,” said Colleen Koss, who got a license online to perform marriage ceremonies. “I used to work in finance. Nobody is ever happy in finance.”

Her husband, Duane Koss, has lived on the land for 20 years, and started the habitat restoration with his first wife, who died 15 years ago. Colleen moved there eight years ago. She said their goal is to buy more property when they can to expand the efforts.

“The whole idea is to acquire, create and maintain sustainable wildlife habitat,” she said.

Duane Koss is a retired pilot and was director of transportation for Transamerica, flying corporate jets for the company. Colleen Koss is president of Koss LLC, which includes As You Wish Weddings and grant writing for other organizations.

In the spring, Colleen hopes to start Wishful Wellness to facilitate retreats on the land. Koss LLC is a separate entity from the nonprofit, which is focused on wildlife and habitat.

Visits to the land just outside Amana are by appointment only for people they don’t know. Koss would like to work with local schools to bring in students for field trips.

“I think it’s very important our youth get into nature and experience it,” she said.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s good hard work. You feel good at the end of the day, that you’ve accomplished something, planted something that’s going to help animals.”