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East Peru, Iowa - Heather Jobst arrived for a tour of a potential new wildlife area and was immediately struck by the uniqueness of the parcel’s size, lack of internal roads and its location less than an hour from Des Moines.
Jobst, the senior land conservation director with Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), saw the potential in the nearly 400 acres of rolling hills, timber and prairie in southern Madison County and began a six month negotiation to purchase the private hunting retreat. The deal was finalized in early fall 2016.
In the late summer of 2017, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) purchased the land from INHF and Heritage Hills Wildlife Area became the second largest state managed public area in the county. And word got out quickly.
“Hunters found it pretty early last fall,” said Bryan Hellyer, supervisor for the Iowa DNR’s southeast wildlife district. And why wouldn’t they. Heritage Hills has an oak hickory timber, food plots, reconstructed prairie, mature field in the Conservation Reserve Program and small prairie streams.
“There’s something here for everyone, whether you’re a nature lover or a hunter. It’s a neat landscape,” he said.
The landscape will support hunters looking for a hike-in hunting experience, to bird watchers and nature lovers. It’s a place for everything – grassland birds, deer hunting, hiking, photography and pheasant and quail hunting. Along the west edge of the reconstructed prairie, a covey of 20 quail could be still no longer and flushed.
“This is kind of an exciting thing going on,” said Nick Palaia, fish and wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Bloomington, Minn., who is responsible for regional grants for land acquisition and access. “We hope to see the neighbors’ kids shoot their first deer here or pheasant off this area.”
And while the area is already in excellent condition, there is some work to do.
This past spring, Hellyer’s staff burned about 300 acres of the upland and timber that took out a number of cedar trees off the hillsides and helped kick start the prairie reconstruction. The timber resource will be managed under a forest stewardship plan.
“We will be filling in abandoned ditches and removing undesirable trees, open up the grasslands, take trees off the remnant prairie. It will just take a little time,” said Heath Van Waus, wildlife technician with the Iowa DNR who will be managing the area. “Looking six years out, it will look a lot different.”
Hunters help fund Heritage Hills purchase
The Heritage Hills project was possible in part because of the federal taxes paid on hunting related equipment.
A federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition is used as a way to help fund wildlife related research, hunter education, shooting range development, land acquisition and access at the state level. The funds are distributed to states based on a formula that includes the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold.
Heritage Hills funding was part of the Iowa DNR’s 2016-2019 Statewide Wildlife Restoration Land Acquisition Program Grant funded with Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program funds.
Heritage Hills home to threatened species
Part of the acquisition process included conducting bat surveys and surveyors found federally endangered Indiana bats and federally threatened northern long-eared bats on the area. Henslow’s sparrows, a threatened species in Iowa, have been heard here.
As work continues on the habitat improvement, Heritage Hills may become home to other species of concern that have been found nearby, including regal fritillary – a prairie butterfly, and Edwards hairstreak – an oak woodland butterfly, as well as bullsnakes.