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Noddleman Island is Western Iowa’s secret wild playground

The old advertising tag line – just waiting to be explored – could have been written for Noddleman Island Wildlife Management Area on the east shore of the Missouri River.

The nearly 1,300 acres of public Iowa wildland sits just a stone’s throw west of I-29, a few miles southwest of Glenwood and less than 30 minutes from Council Bluffs and Omaha. It offers the curious an opportunity at seeing some unique Iowa birds, hike a floodplain, hunt with little competition and experience an ecosystem in the process of being restored.

Noddleman Island has two distinct personalities – one is mild, the other is not.

The mild is mild– a network of potholes next to the access lane within eyeshot of I-29 provides a quick trip for kayakers, marsh bird enthusiasts and duck hunters. The non-mild requires hunters, bird watchers or explorers to hike in carrying their gear, navigating a drainage ditch that is usually flowing with water just to get to the island part of the area. 

But once on the island, it’s likely to be a solitary experience, except for the resident wildlife - quail, pheasants, deer, waterfowl and more.

“If you’re willing to hike, you’ll likely have the area to yourself and see some pretty cool stuff,” said Lindsey Barney, district forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Visitors can see native plants like false indigo bush, Canada anemone, wild strawberries, wild grapes, cord grass and more. And that’s just in the mild zone. Imagine what can be found in the non-mild.

Barney is overseeing the reforestation effort underway on 70 acres of lowlands damaged by the 2011 flood. As part of her management plan, she has been referencing survey maps created in 1875 that indicate a large floodplain forest was once here.

Nearly 43,000 bottomland hardwood trees were planted four years ago and the growth is evident with the sycamores leading the way. In addition to the sycamores, the primary planting included cottonwoods, willows and silver maple, but Barney added a few walnut, pecan, American plum, green ash and dogwood. All of the stock came from the State Forest Nursery.

While planting 43,000 trees on 70 acres seems like a lot, naturally seeded young floodplain forests have several thousand trees per acre, and in the end, nature will determine the survivors.

“We’re missing some substantial timber down here,” she said. “Anything we can get back, I’m excited about.”

Standing in the middle of an emerging bottomland hardwood timber stand, the sounds of pheasants, quail, ducks and geese are joined by redwing blackbirds and dickcissels. Dragonflies, bumble bees and butterflies move through the area with a sense of purpose. There is little evidence that anyone has been here recently. 

 

Watching for invaders

The flood of 2011 is still causing damage years after its water retreated.

Japanese hops appeared after the flood and has been smothering everything in the floodplain. The exotic invasive can grow up small trees or shrubs and on top of grasses.

“When it grows on everything, treatments must be limited to avoid injuring desirable native plants,” Barney said. “It doesn’t green up early or stay green late like other invasives. The only natural way to suppress it is through shade. That’s why it’s a problem in floodplains. Large cottonwoods die off from flood damage, and the shade is gone.”

Another invader has been around for years.

The tree of heaven. Don’t be misled by the name.

“It’s the worst of the worst,” Barney said. “It’s the ‘checkmate’ for an upland forest. You can have one of those trees in your upland forest and if you miss it and perform routine thinning work, in 10 years, you will be overrun with it. Disturbed ground is its perfect habitat.”

Tree of heaven was brought in from China in the 1800s because it could grow in difficult soils, which made it a good ornamental tree.  

It blends in with natives and has features that are similar to a variety of trees and looks nearly identical to the Kentucky coffee tree. It becomes seed producing at age five or six, and can produce 300,000 seeds each. Each seed can have up to a 90 percent germination rate.

Traditional woody plant control treatments don’t work and, in fact, could make things worse.

So far, tree of heaven has not been found at Nottleman Island. Japanese hops was found, but it was spot treated in the planting unit prior to planting.

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