During the off-season months of November thru April the Conservation Board staff is able to switch gears from caring for the campgrounds, picnic areas and trails to projects that improve habitat. The work is often misunderstood by the public. This article will explain some of the benefits that result from the work being done.
Prairie management projects are very important because many species of wildlife that depend on this type of habitat are declining. It is said that 1/10th of 1 percent of Iowa’s original prairie remains. The prairie grasses and wildflowers require full sun to survive. Allowing these remnants to be overtaken by invasive brush makes them unusable to many types of insects from butterflies to walking sticks as well as several grassland dependent birds.
One good tool for keeping prairies open is prescribed fire. Each spring we try to burn a few of our prairie areas as weather and time allows. Burning regularly keeps them free of brush and generally in good shape. Some of our prairie areas that are farther out in the county or are hard to access can become overgrown with invasive trees and brush. Some of these invaders cannot be controlled with fire.

When this occurs, other tools become necessary. Chainsaws and brush mowers are commonly used to keep unwanted trees out of prairies. Hard to kill invasives like Autumn Olive and Black Locust must also be treated with herbicide. A similar tool that will be used at Round Prairie Park and the Neff Wetland this winter is called a Forestry Mulcher. This is a grinder attachment that goes on a skid loader and is able to mulch all the unwanted brush into chips.
Round Prairie Park contains over 50 acres of remnant prairie that has been overtaken by Autumn Olive, Amur Maple and Red Cedar. A contractor with a Forestry Mulcher will be working during the next 2 winters to restore these very rare and important remnants.

The right of way of the Loop Trail along the Highway 34 bypass was seeded to prairie after its construction. This prairie is a hard one to take care of with fire because of its proximity to the highway and adjoining private property. Several beneficial trees have been planted along this stretch but many invaders have also grown up. Trees like Box Elder, Cottonwood, Black Locust, Cedar, Elm, and the shrub Autumn Olive all have the potential if left unchecked to shade out the prairie. Conservation Board staff will be removing many of these trees during the upcoming winter to save the prairie and the wildlife that depend on it.
Another technique that park visitors may notice is known as girdling. This involves cutting the bark at the base of unwanted trees and leaving them standing. This allows the sunlight back into areas that were once prairie. This may also be done in forest or woodlands to help with Oak Regeneration. Young oaks require sunlight to thrive.
The disturbance that results from these projects can be upsetting to see but the goal of improving wildlife habitat is more important than ever. For prairie wildlife to survive there must be prairie.

For more details about improving habitat contact Shawn by email Shawn@JeffersonCountyConservation.com.