A slow, grumpy painted turtle begins the slow trek across a paved road in western Greene County, 250th Street, that bisects fields marked as public hunting areas and others designating waterfowl refuges that prohibit duck and goose hunting. Rabbits bound through a roped-off gravel circle that allows drivers to pull off the road. A pheasant flies across a gravel road, landing low among foot-high corn adjoining a field of tall grasses. At a wet, marshy area, green algae parts as critters swim through the water, dragging plants in their wake as their cohabitants plop on the surface nearby. Nearby, spent yellow shotgun shells litter the gravel leading up to the water.
Perched atop “public hunting” signs, bare branches and sturdy plants, red-winged blackbirds cheerily sing.
The Dunbar Slough State Wildlife Management Area, at the moment, is a 2,134-acre public wetland complex, nestled within the Prairie Pothole Region and managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as wildlife and hunting areas. But advocates are working to have the area designated as a National Wildlife Refuge, drawing federal funds to purchase more land and expand the area — eventually including both public and private land and greatly expanding the space available for wildlife habitats and hunting.
Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced a bill in September that would designate the area a National Wildlife Refuge.
“I was excited to introduce this legislation, with the support of major conservation groups to further protect and expand the wildlife habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region of Iowa,” Harkin told Herald Publishing Co. in September. “These areas provide terrific outdoor recreation opportunities for hunting, hiking, and wildlife viewing and serve as critical nesting grounds for waterfowl and other species.”
Citing a significant waterfowl hunting tourism draw for the area, among other benefits, advocates are continuing to lobby with the public and current lawmakers for federal refuge status for the wetland-grassland complex located along the Willow Creek tributary of the Middle Raccoon River.
The Prairie Pothole Region encompasses the last glacier that came across Iowa, an area that also extends through Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Kansas, said Josh Gansen, wildlife management biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The region is characterized by its rich soil and shallow marshes, according to a Prairie Pothole Region preservation plan. Some time ago, parts of the Willow Creek watershed were designated as a 23,500-acre Prairie Pothole Joint Venture priority project, according to the plan.
Dunbar Slough’s 2,134 acres lie along the bottom of the Des Moines lobe, part of the Prairie Pothole Region.
“From a wildlife standpoint, it’s extremely significant for most waterfowl, migratory, wetland-type birds,” Gansen said.
Gansen’s staff, the Wildlife Bureau of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, oversees maintenance of the Dunbar Slough area, managing it for both wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation — hunting, trapping, bird-watching, kayaking and more. The bureau works to protect the wildlife, manage the water levels and re-invigorate the prairie through burning.
If the area were to receive a National Wildlife Refuge designation, the DNR would continue to manage its publicly owned spots.
Dunbar Slough, named an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, is home to many types of birds, “from falcons to songbirds and sparrows to marsh birds,” according to the plan. In addition to bird-watching, the area offers visitors a variety of activities — hunting, hiking, bicycling, picnicking, canoeing, kayaking, camping and more.
As far as hunting goes, Dunbar Slough mainly serves as an area for waterfowl — ducks and geese — as well as upland game hunting — mostly pheasants, Greene County Conservation Director Dan Towers said.
Also living in the area are deer, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, minks, beavers, coyotes and more, he said. In addition to the presence of the birds that are popularly hunted, a wide variety of other bird species populate the area, providing entertainment for bird-watchers.
The area is particularly special because of its artesian wells and the presence of Blanding’s turtles, a threatened species.
Seeking a refuge designation
The National Wildlife Refuge designation could apply to both Dunbar Slough and much of the surrounding Southern Prairie Pothole Region — a 23,500-acre area, Towers said. The area stretches roughly from south of Ralston to Bayard.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would designate boundaries for additional land that could be added to the refuge. Federal funds would be made available to help expand and manage the refuge, which would broaden further as private landowners voluntarily became involved.
Much of the refuge’s land would remain privately owned, with an emphasis on farming conservation practices. The current acres designated as Dunbar Slough fall within western Greene County, but the refuge’s expansion could eventually touch Guthrie and Carroll counties as well.
The designation would not immediately expand the Dunbar Slough area — far from it, Towers said.
“This would be a very long-term project,” he said. “It’s anybody’s guess how long that falls out.”
As more of Iowa’s land is used for farming, less than 0.1 percent of Iowa’s native prairies and only 5 percent of its wetlands still exist, according to the preservation plan. Much of the refuge’s significance would be preserving the remaining prairies and wetlands in west-central Iowa.
Objectives and benefits of the plan to preserve the Southern Prairie Pothole Region include improving water quality, hydrology and drainage; increasing the abundance and diversity of wildlife in the area, including birds, mammals, reptiles and more; attracting migrating waterfowl; and increasing outdoor recreation and tourism, according to the plan.
With the expansion, hunting would continue to be permitted only on the publicly owned portions of the refuge, Towers said — privately owned areas dedicated to conservation practices would not.
“The conservation practice areas would look similar,” he said. “The ground would look similar on each side of the fence — but just one would be open to public hunting.”
Still, the expansion of public areas open to hunting would have an important economic effect. Increasing the areas around Dunbar Slough that can be used for hunting and wildlife viewing would draw in more visitors, including those visiting from further away who in turn would also visit Greene, Carroll and Guthrie counties, advocates say.
“It would draw that many more hunters,” Towers said. “Hunters would come to this area, spend two or three days and stay overnight, eat in restaurants — that’s where the tourism dollars come from.”
But expanding the refuge and restoring the grass and wetlands would also draw more wildlife to the area.
“When there are larger blocks of core areas for habitats, that’s better for certain types of grassland birds,” Gansen said.
“With these larger complexes, you start to get species you won’t get now because of the size.”
One example of a species that might come to the area if it had more room is the sandhill crane, he added.
And while hunting would be a large draw for tourists, bird-watching is also a major industry that shouldn’t be ignored, Gansen said.
If the Dunbar Slough area were to double, for instance, a significant effect would be seen.
“You’d probably expect the number of pheasant hunters, the number of bird-watchers, all that to double,” he said. “And you’d really see the wildlife response with the larger area.”
Conservation of some of Iowa’s fish and wildlife species is an important aspect of the project.
“After a half-century of conservation, one-third of all of Iowa’s fish and wildlife are still considered in need of immediate conservation to stop their numbers from eventually dwindling into threatened or endangered status,” the preservation plan states. “A host of less-visible and specialized wildlife — songbirds, lizards and snakes, frogs and salamanders, fish, freshwater mussels and highly fragile butterflies among others — is seriously threatened by the disappearance and degradation of their habitats. … Without assistance to reverse these trends, more species will face a grim future — eventual disappearance from our state.”
If it received the designation, Dunbar Slough and the Southern Prairie Pothole Region would join several other National Wildlife Refuges in the state, including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
Driving through the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge with the window rolled down on a rainy day, Deputy Refuge Manager Cheryl Groom indicates the purple spiderwort covering several fields before pointing out an oak savanna portion of the refuge that is being restored.
It’s slow-going, she said — about 35 acres of oak savanna restored so far, five or six in the past year, and 300 more to go.
Restoring the oak savanna portions of the refuge, as well as its tallgrass prairie and sedge meadow, is one of the many tasks the refuge staff has taken on.
The refuge was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1990, and the first land was purchased in 1991. Today, it spans 5,600 acres, and it is continuing to expand. Many of the refuge’s objectives would be mirrored with a National Wildlife Refuge in the Dunbar Slough area — mainly, “to re-create what was naturally there, trying to restore what was,” Towers said.
Much of the area at Neal Smith is open for hunting, with about a third of the land, including visitor areas and the bison enclosure, prohibiting hunting. The refuge is closed at night and doesn’t allow night hunting; it also prohibits snaring and trapping, but for the most part, its policies mirror statewide hunting regulations.
The refuge is home to between 50 and 70 bison — each year, some are given away to conservation groups and Native American tribes — and about 20 elk, as well as countless small mammals and insects, hundreds of species of birds, and more.
Pointing out a songbird’s call, Groom said she is slowly learning the birds — she can identify close to 100 species based on their appearance or song. Some of those are declining, including the Henslow’s sparrow, making the refuge an important habitat for the species.
Literature from Neal Smith notes that although extinction is a natural process, studies show that current extinction rates are much higher than in the past, necessitating protection of endangered and threatened species.
Each year, about 140,000 people visit the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Groom estimated that 5,000 of those visitors each year come to hunt. The majority of the visitors come for the educational offerings — the refuge has a large visitors center and offers tours — as well as wildlife observation and recreation.
In the last year, the refuge received visitors from 35 countries and 49 states, including Alaska and Hawaii — it only missed one, Groom joked. Down the road, employees hope to see yearly visitation numbers increase to 200,000.
As a National Wildlife Refuge, Neal Smith is largely run through federal funds. A total of 75 percent of its budget goes toward the salaries of the refuge’s 10 employees, with the final chunk used to manage the refuge.
Many of the refuge’s efforts join those of other organizations, Groom said. The refuge is buying some land to add to its total acreage from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge provides living stipends for 10 volunteer interns each year.
“They can actually eat,” Groom joked. “It’s fantastic.”
Indeed, volunteers are a vital part of the refuge’s success, she said, estimating they provide an average of 12,000–14,000 hours of service each year — the work of another six employees.
The refuge also partners with area schools, which brings students to the refuge several times a year for field trips that incorporate state curriculum standards of learning — ranging from science and art to nature journaling. The Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge reimburses the schools for busing, making it possible for some of them to attend.
The Friends organization also funded a recent project that brought Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation to the refuge for several weeks. The dogs identified plants in the refuge’s fields — varieties that employees want to remove, as well as good plants such as milkweed, which attracts monarch butterflies.
The refuge continues to change. Soon, 4-foot-wide bike lanes will be added to each side of the refuge’s entry road, a measure Groom hopes will draw in more bicyclists.
Located in Jasper County but situated close to Polk County, the refuge affects the economies of both counties. One of the purposes of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual “Banking on Nature” report is to analyze the economic effects of National Wildlife Refuges.
The 2006 analysis noted that the area population around the refuge increased by 12.8 percent from 1995 to 2005, compared with a 3.4 percent population increase in Iowa and an 11.4 percent increase in the United States during that time period.
Area employment in the area increased by 11.8 percent in those 10 years, less than the country’s increase but higher than the state’s overall increase.
The breakdown shows that the bulk of visitors to the refuge came for the nature trails, bird-watching and other wildlife observation.
Visitor expenditures in Jasper and Polk counties was $2.3 million in 2006, with $2.1 million coming from non-residents.
Local economic effects associated with recreation visits encompassed a final demand of $2.5 million, associated with 36 jobs, $982,200 in employment income and $325,400 in total tax revenue, according to the report.
Preserving the area and providing a wildlife refuge is important for several reasons, including protecting species that are in decline — grassland birds, insects, pollinators and more, Groom said.
The effort also carries a historical effect.
“Culturally, it lets you know what our ancestors and Native Americans here saw,” Groom said. “You realize as you walk through these areas how they went through here too and could barely see through the grass when they were on horseback.
“It’s neat. It reconnects us with our past.”
Down the road
Since 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System has been in place. Now, more than 560 refuges span almost 150 million acres across the country dedicated to preserving plants, wildlife and fish, according to literature from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge.
At Dunbar Slough, efforts resulting from a National Wildlife Designation would continue to restore the wetlands and native grasses nestled in the area’s shallow marsh and prairie lands.
There are other ways to expand areas like Dunbar Slough, with gradual public land purchases, Towers said. But a National Wildlife Refuge designation is a “big bang” approach, opening up federal funding to help move along the effort.
Obtaining a National Wildlife Refuge designation and expansion is important in part because of the wildlife habitat aspect — Iowa ranks 49 out of the 50 states in public land ownership, Towers said.
“Anything we can add to that is very big,” he said.
He added that offering more land for hunting is important as well.
“There are getting to be more limited areas for the average guy to go out and take his son hunting,” Towers said. “Anywhere we can expand that is good.”
Because of Dunbar Slough’s proximity to Whiterock Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust near Coon Rapids, an expansion would benefit both entities. Whiterock would offer recreational opportunities to Dunbar Slough’s visitors, but the land trust would see advantages as well.
If an expansion of Dunbar Slough eventually caused the refuge to share a border with Whiterock, the conservancy’s executive director, Conrad Kramer, hopes to share trails with the area and eventually join some separate bike trails, increasing recreational offerings to visitors.
“An expansion of Dunbar Slough would create a really great wetland habitat next to our upland habitat here,” he said. “We feel like that’s important. Getting another big wetland habitat next to us — it’d be pretty darn special.”
Courtesy of Rebecca McKinsey, the Daily Times Herald 6/15/15, Guthrie County Vedette 6/18/15, Guthrie Center Times 6/24/15, and The Jefferson Herlad6/25/15.