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Waterfowl habitat improvements made during drought

November 10, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

DROUGHT can be tough to deal with. We have to adapt. Wildlife adapts too. I'm inclined to think that wildlife take drought years in stride just as they do excessively wet years. Tough times demand flexibility in order to survive. Waterfowl have been at this survival game for many eons of geological time. While Iowa was extra dry this year, abundant rains in Canadian prairie pothole regions were responsible for excellent hatches of many species of ducks. The problem for Iowa duck hunters is and will be the almost absolute lack of water in area wetlands and marshes. Add to this the propensity for some migrating waterfowl to catch just the right high altitude tail wind in the Dakotas or Minnesota and fly right through Iowa on their way to the rice fields of Arkansas's Mississippi River floodplain wetlands. If Iowa wetlands had water, there would be at least some birds stopping to rest and feed. Not so this year.

As the saying goes, if life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. For wildlife bureau crews of the DNR, drought is a time to get into places with heavy machinery and do some land shaping, unwanted vegetation removal, and channel deepening, all in anticipation for a future time when normal rainfall will fill those now dry wetlands to the brim with cool clear water.

At Otter Creek Marsh, the 3,600-plus acre wildlife area along the Iowa River east of Tama/Toledo, new potholes were dug in several locations. Getting a bulldozer into these places was possible this year. In a typical year, wildlife managers could only dream of what they would like to do, then have the patience to wait for the right weather and dry soil conditions to let it happen. When water does return, the new pothole depressions will be deep enough to maintain open water while cattails grow and thrive at the edges. Ducks and geese will find these pothole to their liking.

Article Photos

A goose landing and splash down at Marshalltown’s Riverside Cemetery pond is ample evidence of the importance of water to all kinds of wildlife, especially ducks and geese. In today’s photo, a Canada Goose loses airspeed quickly while only seconds ago its feet were skidding over the water surface to help with braking action. During this drought year, DNR wildlife crews have access, and are hard at work preparing and modifying wetland sites with heavy machinery during a dry year like 2012. When wet weather returns in future years, waterfowl will benefit from those man-made improvements.

Another dry year project is happening at Hendrickson Marsh, the 700-plus acre wetland complex located west of Rhodes in the far southwest corner of Marshall and the southeast corner of Story County. The drought evaporated all the water from the basin in 2012. Several years ago, crews were able to construct a new parking lot and boat ramp near the south edge of the county line bridge. Now was the perfect time to prepare for wetter years to come. A boat channel from the boat ramp base has been dug to facilitate access to the natural creek channel. When water is available, DNR crews can open or close spillway gate elevation stop logs, for holding or release of water for proper aquatic vegetation management.

At the Green Castle Recreation Area, water draw down continues. In this case, the lake had easily held its full water capacity all summer. But fish management needs became evident as the year went by. Confirmation by fisheries biologists noted the presence of too many common carp. Using dry weather to their advantage, Marshall County Conservation Board staff were granted permission to lower the lake as much as possible this fall and to hold the water at low levels all winter long. Even next spring, rainfall runoff will be allowed to pass through the drawdown spillway tube. Low water in the lake will hopefully allow for shore line fish habitat improvements and exploratory silt removal attempts. This is another example of using dry weather to ones advantage.


PHEASANT hunters have been making attempts to find roosters in various places around Iowa. Best conditions exist in northwest and western Iowa. However, locally pheasants are hard to find. That does not mean they are not here. It is just that their population is quite low due to extremes of past bad winters and wet springs. The winter of 2011-12 was a big help. So too was the relatively dry spring of 2012. If Mother Nature can give pheasants several consecutive mild winters and good spring weather, pheasant rebound potential improves substantially. Roadside counts from last August found the bird count average increased from 6.8 birds last year to 8 birds this year. The gain is small but it does reflect an improvement that is almost entirely weather related. With little hay ground or small grain fields, any remaining conservation reserve program lands become even more important.


HUNTER SAFETY CLASSES are virtually finished for the year. Hundreds of classes were offered throughout Iowa. Still some folks forgot to take advantage of those offerings. It is almost too late for this year. As a last ditch effort to assist some of those that kept putting the deed aside, there will be a field day course at the Marshall County Izaak Walton League on Nov. 25 from noon until 4 p.m. Here is the important difference for this class to work for you. One desiring to participate MUST first take the standard hunter safety course via the internet, pass the test on-line and then print the voucher (field day admission ticket). Bring that voucher to the Ikes grounds on the Nov. 25. Sign up for the Marshall County field day is only via the website: Warning: Passing the online course does not guarantee you a spot at this field day. Late fall classes, if any, fill up fast.


If you think deer hunting is expensive, which it isn't for residents of Iowa, just compare the bite out of the wallet in Austria. This European country has the red deer counterpart to our whitetail. While we have many opportunities to hunt whitetails during well regulated seasons and method of take, hunters in Austria take great effort to offer supplemental feed all year long, then cull some of the animals due to too many red deer, and if a hunter desires to kill one, fees and licenses can amount to the equivalent of $18,000 per animal! In America, wildlife managers discourage man-made supplemental feeding, preferring to have deer survive on their own merits. Our methods prove that the land's natural carrying capacity is adequate to provide enough deer for hunting each fall.


FROST has killed off the insect midge responsible for EHD, Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, in deer. Iowa did lose 2,590 deer based on reported cases from 61 counties. Most of the midge derived deer loses were in Madison and Warren Counties. Almost all of the other reports came from western or southern Iowa sites. Surrounding states also had deer losses due to EHD. Cold weather is ending this drought related problem for this year. A deer in Minnesota, however, was found to be suffering from rabies, an always fatal disease. This one deer is suspected to have been bitten by a infected skunk. This deer had to be killed by authorities.


A new exhibit is in place now at the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm. Check out the art work from Marshalltown Senior High School. It is worth a look-see. While at the Center, take time to closely inspect the natural history dioramas of Iowa woodlands, native prairie and wetlands. A well stocked library has lots of reading material and an excellent bird viewing station. Conservation Center hours are M-F 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Saturday's 9 a.m. until noon.


Ask the Game Warden: I hear about liquidating damages for illegally taken game or fish. What is this and how is it determined? Answer: Liquidating damages are the result of court cases that find a subject guilty by jury or plea. These fees are in additional to any imposed fines. Damage fees are paid into the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund to help managers replace habitat (and in theory the animal). Antlered deer reimbursement is based on antler size. For example... an illegally taken deer with a scored rack of 150 or more could result in liquidating damages of $2,000 to $5,000, plus 80 hours of community service, or in lieu of community service, a minimum of $4,000 and not more than $10,000. Deer poaching is a big problem. Report suspected cases to John Steinbach at 751-5246 or the Iowa TIP hotline at 800-532-2020.


"One must wait until evening to know how splendid the day was." -Anonymous


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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