Conservation efforts in the prairie pothole region

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Courtney Sogard Conservation officials in Hamilton County have invested in pictometry technology to help manage public areas, like Bauer Slough, throughout the county.

When one thinks of conservation efforts being made toward any aspect of nature, one might assume that preserving the natural resources in any given ecosystem may be all the Hamilton County Conservation does for the Briggs Woods animal and vegetation populations.

But some other key elements of conservation efforts are using management tools, such as hunting and the burning of vegetation. Officials are turning to area farmers for help in preserving the natural habitats found within their own cropland, and restoring marshes and wetlands to their natural states.

Decreases in hunting licensing numbers, which gives back to conservation funds, is due in large part to a lack of interest in younger generations and hunting isn’t the primal means for survival that it once was. People do it for recreational purposes, but there’s a shift in kids using technology instead of being one with nature — a nationwide issue, according to Brian Lammers, Executive Director of the Hamilton County Conservation. When teaching hunter’s safety courses, what students learn first is that hunting is actually a management tool to prevent overpopulation in local species, which could lead to a depletion of a vital food source, their natural habitats, or could somehow adversely affect the ecosystem as a whole if not kept in check. Water, food, cover, space, and arrangement are all items needed to properly balance any ecosystem, and space can be very limited for species like water fowl, when their natural habitats have become depleted at alarming rates in past decades.

“The Hamilton County Conservation has invested in a pictometry technology, which will aid us in our field work. The pictometry imagery was taken last year through aerial shots and can depict different land forms and an area that may need to be developed,” said Lammers.

The pictometry images help the conservation department to pick an area of land that may need burned, in order to suppress any type of woody vegetation from growing into the natural prairie setting. The control burn acts as a management tool that will also heat up the natural wildflowers, which would otherwise be unable to regenerate without the heat. Overall, by burning any invasive vegetation to the prairie helps to keep this biome in its original state.

This technology is also used in seeing what wetlands may need to be brought back to their natural states.

Hamilton County is part of the Prairie Pothole region, which was a type of topographical event created when the glaciers receded in the area, creating the natural wetlands in this region. Due to the practice of tiling these potholes for agricultural production, Hamilton County has lost a large amount of these natural habitats, that are not only necessary for the ecosystem within these potholes, but they also act as a natural filtration system for the ground water that Iowans use for drinking.

Farming is greatly needed for food production, and the Hamilton County Conservation has worked with area farmers to educate them about the necessity of all habitats by showing them how to properly cultivate their land and to encourage them to set aside a piece of farmland in order to enroll into a CRP, or a Conservation Reserve Program, which is administered by the Farm Service Agency and are programs that help landowners with the expense of wildlife habitat conservation efforts on their own land. The landowners will benefit from up to 15 years through a payment on the annual land rental. By adding much needed habitats to a farmer’s land, it allows for better water quality and protects the farmer’s soil in the process.

“Sources of local funding for natural resources are limited to some rotation crops in the areas, crop cash rent used to offset costs, CRP monitored through our tenants, tax support budget set up for conservation, reap dollars and wildlife habitat stamp dollars all go into the management fund, whereas at the Federal and State level, when people buy shotgun shells and hunting equipment, there is the pit and bows act, which is a federal tax included with these purchases to go towards keeping up federal and state areas. Maintenance in a prairie setting isn’t as high since they remain in their natural state and we just have to make sure it stays that way, as opposed to the upkeep of a state park,” said Lammers. “Support on habitat restoration helps us do our job,” he added.

Wetland restoration is the practice of restoring previously converted wetlands, which will improve water quality and wildlife habitat. Wetlands help control pollution, by breaking down the excess nutrients and chemical contaminants found in some of these areas from local farming practices using insecticides that would otherwise be harmful in the ground water, but the wetlands are able to act as a re-charge to the ground water supplies. They also reduce the amount of silt in downstream lakes, rivers and oceans, which is a very harmful pollutant. Other than the water fowl populations benefiting from these natural depressions within the Prairie Pothole Region, hundreds of other species from invertebrates, to snails, to muskrats all need these wetlands habitats to survive. Marshes and wetlands are imperative to keep for these reasons.

“Use the areas that are publicly owned. Hike them. Use them, don’t abuse them. If you see these areas being misused, say something. They belong to the public, conservation just manages them. There are 2,000 acres in the county open to public hunting, but it’s not just for the hunters, it’s for everyone to enjoy,” said Lammers.