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Gabrielson Wildlife Area offers visitors a glimpse of what Iowa may have looked like centuries ago

Forest City - The 800-acre Gabrielson Wildlife Management Area in northeast Hancock County is a unique mix of mature oak timber with wetlands dotting the savanna, prairies and hidden fens.

Some of the massive oaks date back hundreds of years; likely greeting settlers as they made their way across the prairie. Looking at the soil records from more than a century ago, 190,000 acres in the corner where Hancock, Worth, Cerro Gordo and Winnebago counties meet had trees like this. Most were removed as the state was settled leaving only a few groves and farmsteads with these massive oaks.

“You don’t think of north central Iowa as a place to come to see an amazing forest resource but it’s an amazing place,” said TJ Herrick, wildlife management biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He said a person could spend a day going from tree to tree looking at the giant oaks on the area.

This timber has seen a lot of things come and go, but a current invader is a particular nuisance: common buckthorn.

Common buckthorn is an unwanted invasive species choking out the timber understory and carpeting the floor with a massive seed bank meant to replace any trees that are removed. For oaks to regenerate, they need an open forest floor. Herrick is attempting to provide that space by spraying and grinding existing buckthorn trees, then running fire through the timber.

“If we don’t do something to replace the oaks, eventually, we won’t have anything to take their place when they’re gone,” he said.

To the west of the timber is a former hay field in its third year as a prairie. What makes this one different from others is that Herrick added acorns to the mix when the prairie was seeded.

Now small but determined oak trees are starting to appear among the stiff golden rod, partridge pea, primrose, tic trefoil and big bluestem. His vision is to have an oak savanna here when his grandkids are grandparents.

“As land managers, we remove trees from places where they shouldn’t be and add them to places where they once were historically and where they should be today,” he said.  

The young prairie savanna is also great bugging habitat for pheasant and turkey broods.

 

Rare species, unique wetlands

“A lot of this area has never been farmed, that why we see the giant oaks, fen orchids and other unique species,” Herrick said.

Gabrielson is home to rare species like smooth green snakes, gray fox, red squirrels, Dion skippers and broad-winged skippers as well as more common timber species like scarlet tanagers and pileated woodpeckers. Sandhill cranes can be seen in and around the area. This area of the state had been the only place in Iowa where southern red-backed voles called home. It was last documented here in the 1980s. North Iowa is on the southern edge of its normal range.

Wetlands tucked in with the oak savanna are home to some rare plants like the fen thistle and fen twayblade. Leafy northern green orchid was confirmed for the first time in Hancock County in 2015.

There’s a three acre fen on the west end of the area has never been plowed. Fens are unique landforms that develop when a seep or spring usually on the side of a hill releases calcium rich groundwater to the surface creating a permanent wet area. This one is filled with native cattails.

“It’s always wet,” Herrick said. “I’ve been out here in February and saw live leopard frogs swimming in the pools.”

Just below the fen, a small wetland was created when drainage tile was broken and a tile intake was plugged. It catches water from the fen. This area was likely a shallow lake at one time.

Nature photographers could spend a lot of time here.

 

Popular during the hunting season

Rarely does a day go by in November where there isn’t a car or two in the parking lots. It’s a destination for deer and turkey hunting in a part of the state that is more often associated with duck and pheasant hunting.

Squirrel hunters need to be aware that red squirrels are here and are protected.

Nonresident deer hunters usually from the east coast and the southeast often call to ask what Gabrielson has to offer. It’s in a zone that has fewer deer tags and fewer applicants but could increase the chance of drawing a tag.

“That’s why we do what we do,” he said. “We want people to use these areas.”

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