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Riverton, Iowa - Hunters for generations have called the Riverton Wildlife Area home each fall. This high quality marsh in central Fremont County has been a magnet for ducks since the 1950s and '60s, when farmers finally quit trying to produce a crop from its wet soil.
Dikes once built to hold water out are still here today, allowing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the ability to direct water to specific sites by way of two large pumps and 37 water control structures.
This part of the state attracts more than just fowl. Studies have identified 128 different bird species nesting here, with another 154 species passing through, which is the most observed anywhere in the state. Of these 282 bird species, 92 are species of greatest conservation need.
“Bird watching is really an underutilized activity here,” said Matt Dollison, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR. Dollison has been the area biologist for Riverton since 2013.
“We’ve had sandhill cranes nesting here since 2014; trumpeter swans nested just west of the area since 2015. That drew a lot of attention,” he said.
The Riverton Wildlife Area is managed to provide high quality habitat for wildlife across the spectrum. It has hundreds of acres of diverse prairie and thousands of acres of wetlands. From deer to ducks and dragonflies to butterflies, the Riverton Wildlife Area is an outdoor paradise waiting to be discovered.
Arguably one of the top waterfowl destinations in Iowa, Riverton has a loyal following among duck hunters for sure. The marsh covers 2,200 acres that is huntable from waders or boat. It’s hard to beat Riverton when the teal blow through, and later in the year hunters can have high rates of success, with a little breathing room after other hunters turn to chasing deer and pheasants. In drought years like 2017, Riverton will have water.
The ducks come to Riverton because it has what they want – water and food. That doesn’t just happen by accident; it’s part of a plan to make Riverton too good to pass up.
Dollison said the goal is to have a good crop of annual plants, like barnyard grass and smartweed that produce high value seeds. Ideally, the marsh will dry completely in the early summer, allowing the annuals to germinate, grow and produce seed ahead of Aug. 15 when the pumps are turned on.
As the temperature drops in the later part of the duck season, the annual plants die back and provide open water roosting for mallards that feed in the surrounding crop fields. Some perennial species like river bulrushes and cattails remain to provide hunter concealment.
Once the wetlands reach pool, water is held through the spring snow goose migration to provide a refuge for the geese and hunters an opportunity to hunt them as part of the special conservation order. It is common to have more than 100,000 snow geese on Riverton during this time. This provides a site to be seen for hunters and bird watchers alike. Once the migration moves north, the marsh is dewatered.
This process happens every year.
“We have a really good thing going here,” Dollison said. “We’re known for hunting, but we can easily support more bird watching, kayaking, hiking and fishing.”
As Iowa’s most southwest county, Riverton is about 150 miles from a population of more than 4 million people. Once the word gets out, it might be difficult to get a table at the nearby Waterfowl Café.
More than just webfoots
Riverton draws hunters from beyond the local communities to Council Bluffs, Omaha and Des Moines. While it is well known for ducks and geese, Riverton also offers quality dove, deer, pheasant and quail hunting.
The prairie area has been developed to provide a diverse plant mix to attract bugs for young birds to eat, especially young pheasants and quail.
This prairie diversity also benefits pollinators, especially the monarch butterfly.
Walk on the wild side
Riverton’s network of dikes provides more than 20 miles of mowed or surfaced lanes, giving a unique experience to hikers looking for something new.
Dikes in the refuge portion of the area are off limits to everyone from Sept. 1 through the end of duck season each year to provide migrating birds a quiet layover on their way south.
Be sure to remember the bug spray.