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Public-Land Adventures: Iowa’s Sand Creek Wildlife Area



Tucked in to the rolling hills of southern Iowa’s Decatur County is Sand Creek Wildlife Area, a 3,700-acre destination for deer hunters and bird watchers. Here, cell service disappears and nature’s sounds take over – this isn’t a white noise machine – it’s the real thing.

“It’s one of our most popular areas because of its size and location,” said Chad Paup, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “This area has everything Iowa has to offer. It draws a lot of people from the Des Moines area and from outside of Iowa.”

Sand Creek is a mix of reconstructed prairie and open spaces, with timber and river bottom floodplains interspersed. The area management plan has prioritized improving the timber component since 2015, and Paup said the nearby Grand River Wildlife Unit has been working toward that goal by removing cedars and invasive species to benefit turkeys, quail and woodland bird species.

“That work is paying dividends,” he said. “You can see some improvements on the area and in the stands. It’s pretty cool.”

Staff also maintain an extensive network of firebreaks, he said, that allows them to use prescribed fire as a management tool on between 200 and 500 acres each year. The firebreaks could also be used to hike through Sand Creek and by hunters looking for an assist with dragging out a deer.

Staff partner with some of their neighboring farmers on mowing, cropping and habitat work and for that effort, they are allowed to harvest up to 90 percent of the crops – the remaining 10 percent will stay as a food plot.

Because of Sand Creek’s size and habitat diversity, wildlife researchers have spent time here, documenting the different species of animals that call the area home.

The Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring team has documented an extensive bird population, including common nighthawk, hairy woodpecker, great crested fly catcher, white-crowned sparrow, yellow-breasted chat, northern flicker and more. The crew documented 11 bat species and more than 60 species of butterflies, including regal fritillaries.

Bird Conservation Area

Sand Creek Woodland/Savanna was named as Iowa’s 15th Bird Conservation Area (BCA) in early 2010. The designation encompasses more than 30,000 acres of woodland and grassland habitat on public and private land in Decatur, Ringgold and Union counties. The Sand Creek Woodland/Savanna Bird Conservation Area contains both woodland and grassland habitats providing homes to about half of Iowa’s nesting bird species.

The Bird Conservation Area concept focuses on all-bird conservation on a large scale its success depends upon partnerships between public agencies, private conservation organizations, and private landowners. Each BCA consists of at least 10,000 acres with one or more core areas of permanently protected bird habitat surrounded by large areas of privately-owned land that also provides important habitat for birds. Core public lands are managed for all wild birds, but especially for those species experiencing regional or continental population declines.

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