Sandhill Cranes

Iowa Bird Conservation Area Program

Within the last two decades, alarming declines in a large number of species of North American birds have led to the emergence of national and international initiatives dedicated to conservation of game and nongame birds. Various conservation programs or plans aimed at individual groups of declining birds are gathering under the umbrella of North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) to conserve "all birds in all habitats." As part of this initiative and in an effort to protect dwindling populations of many Iowa birds, Iowa's Bird Conservation Area (BCA) Program was established by the DNR Wildlife Bureau in 2001.

What is a BCA?
The Bird Conservation Area concept was first proposed by the Midwest Working Group of Partners In Flight (PIF) to maintain populations of breeding grassland birds. That has since been expanded to include birds breeding in a variety of habitats, including grassland, wetland, woodland, and savanna. This concept is backed by research that suggests viable bird populations require conservation efforts at a landscape-oriented level. The present model BCA encompasses at least 10,000 acres of public and/or private lands that includes approximately 25% of the area as key bird habitat. For instance, in a designated grassland BCA, at least 25% of the total land cover should be some type of grassland. Each BCA also should include a large "core" area of protected high-quality habitat (typically at least 20% of the area), with a minimum 2,000 acre core area targeted. Around this core are private lands, plus additional public tracts, managed for good bird habitat or at least maintained to be "neutral" in how they affect bird life. Many of these outlying parcels should be 100 acres or more of contiguous targeted habitat to complete a "matrix" of quality habitat for specific priority birds.

BCAs in Iowa

NABCI defines three >Bird Conservation Regions (BCRs), or ecological regions for Iowa. These are: Eastern Tallgrass Prairie, Prairie Potholes, and Prairie-Hardwood Transition. Representative BCAs have been designated for each of these three regions, and tables listing priority bird species suites have been created for each of these regions.

In 2001, Iowa DNR designated its first BCA, the Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area. Located in the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie BCR in Ringgold County, this also was the first grassland BCA to be dedicated in the U.S. Greater Prairie-Chickens serve as the umbrella species for this BCA, and by managing for prairie chickens, a host of grassland birds will benefit. This includes such species as Henslow's Sparrow, Bobolink, Dickcissel, Short-eared Owl, and Northern Harrier. 

Twenty more BCAs plus one Amphibian and Reptile Conservation area have since been designated across the state. Spring Run Wetlands BCA (Dickinson County) was named in 2002. In 2003, Broken Kettle Grasslands BCA, north of Sioux City in Plymouth County, was dedicated in the spring (see featured activity - April 2003), and Effigy Mounds - Yellow River Forest BCA (Allamakee and Clayton counties), became an official Bird Conservation Area in July. Union Hills Grasslands BCA (Cerro Gordo County) and Iowa River Corridor BCA (Tama, Benton, and Iowa counties) were dedicated (see featured activity - May 2004) during 2004. Within 2005, the Chichaqua-Neal Smith Grassland BCA was dedicated in central Iowa, and the Kellerton Grasslands BCA boundaries were expanded to accommodate the large landscape needs of the Greater Prairie-Chickens calling that area home.

During 2006, Iowa's second largest public forest, Shimek Forest, became an official BCA. Dewey's Pasture Wetland Complex, perhaps Iowa's oldest and most important northwestern Iowa marsh complex became a BCA in July 2006; and the Raccoon River Savanna BCA (see featured activity - December 2006), established around privately owned White Rock Conservancy land in Guthrie County, was dedicated in December 2006. In 2007, both northeast Iowa's Wapsi River Corridor and Eagle Lake Wetlands (Hancock and Winnebago counties) were named as new BCAs. Stephens Forest BCA (Clarke and Lucas counties) became the third Iowa forest bird conservation area in December 2008. With its 6,600+ acres of state forest, it supplies nesting habitat for well over 100 bird species.

In 2009, the Lower Morse Lake Grasslands BCA in Wright County was dedicated. It is one of very few places in Iowa where a person can walk for several continuous miles without leaving public land and where one can still experience the rolling prairies of the region that existed before its settlement by Euro-Americans. Sand Creek Woodland Savanna BCA (Decatur, Ringgold, and Union counties) was dedicated in early 2010. The boundary of the Sand Creek BCA is within just a few miles of the Kellerton Grasslands BCA to the southwest and Stephens Forest BCA to the northeast. Ideally, these three BCAs will one day be connected to create a large corridor of valuable habitat.

The Boone Forks Woodland BCA was dedicated in the fall of 2010 and encompasses the area where the Boone River meets the Des Moines River in Hamilton and Webster counties.  This BCA provides rich habitat for nesting woodland birds, having more bird species of Greatest Conservation Need than any other BCA.  The spring of 2011 followed with the establishment of Cayler Prairie BCA in Dickinson County.  Cayler Prairie is the first BCA centered on a State Preserve, and it is also a National Natural Landmark.  This BCA includes a large amount of protected grassland that is critical for a high percentage of the declining migratory and nesting grassland bird species in Iowa.

Each BCA landscape hosts a signature group of birds, many of which are experiencing notable population declines. With the potential for numerous BCAs in Iowa, it will remain a high priority for the Iowa DNR to continue designating Iowa's best bird habitats as Bird Conservation Areas. Sedan Bottoms became Iowa’s 18th BCA in July 2013.  It is centered on the Chariton River in southern Appanoose County and includes Sharon Bluffs State Park and other important grassland, savanna, woodland, and wetland habitats.  Only the Iowa River Corridor BCA hosts more bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need than Sedan Bottoms BCA, which reflects this area’s importance to so many declining bird species.

In 2014, Iowa added its 19th Bird Conservation Area, Stephens State Forest-Thousand Acres. This is also the 4th BCA that is centered on a state forest (see BCA map).  While this ~50,000 acre BCA (in Lucas, Monroe, and Marion counties) is comprised of about 41% woodland land cover, it also includes about 40% grassland land cover – making this area important to both nesting forest species like the state Endangered Red-shouldered Hawk and state Threatened grassland birds like Henslow’s Sparrow. Records indicate that at least 114 of Iowa’s regular nesting bird species occur here, and this area provides habitat for about half of Iowa’s migrant birds. Finally, the most recent BCA to be designated in the Loess Hills that encompasses Loess Hills Wildlife Management Area and the Loess Hills State Forest.
BCA Brochures (to rotate pdf for easier viewing, right click image and select "rotate clockwise").
Kellerton Grasslands
Spring Run Grasslands
Broken Kettle Grasslands
Effigy Mounds-Yellow River Forest
Iowa River Corridor
Dewey's Pasture
Wapsi River
Eagle Lake Wetlands
Stephens Forest
Lower Morse Lake Grasslands
Sand Creek Woodland Savanna
Boone Forks Woodland
Cayler Prairie
Union Hills
Chichaqua-Neal Smith
Shimek Forest
Raccoon River
Sedan Bottoms
Thousand Acres

Value of BCAs
Bird watching, or birding, is one of North America's fastest growing pastimes, with an estimated 50 - 70 million participants in the United States. These and other associated activities benefit the economies of those regions where they occur. For example, a recent survey by US Fish & Wildlife Service found that over one million Iowans watched wildlife in 2006 and that Iowa residents and nonresidents spent $304 million on wildlife watching in Iowa that same year. Wildlife watching expenditures have grown in the U.S. by 46% since 1991. Special highway and recreational area maps guide birders along "birding trails," and bird festivals and guided birding field trips are offered by a growing number of commercial firms and conservation organizations and agencies. Bird Conservation Areas may help draw the attention of eco-tourism to Iowa, with economic gain for the area motels, restaurants, and other businesses in the BCA vicinity.

The Iowa DNR is moving forward with its efforts to designate special areas of Iowa as BCAs. Such a designation is designed to enhance habitat toward the goal of all-bird conservation in Iowa. There is a strong proponent of building partnerships. If we are to be successful managing landscapes for Iowa's birds (and other wildlife), there will need to be strong cooperation between agencies, private conservation organizations, and private landowners.

These partnerships are key to keeping the landscape alive with the sights and songs of birds.