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Decorah - Northeast Iowa’s towering bluffs and cold water streams are like nowhere else in the state. Add in a popular river that is on endless national lists as one of the best places to paddle in the country and it’s easy to see why Winneshiek County is a destination for outdoor recreation.
It is also home to ruffed grouse; a small game bird that requires a specific habitat to survive.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Northeast Iowa had thousands of acres of high quality grouse habitat and the ruffed grouse population was strong. Over time, the habitat aged, filled in and the population declined.
Recreating that high quality ruffed grouse habitat is an important part of the timber management strategy on Falcon Springs Wildlife Management Area, near Decorah.
Falcon Springs Wildlife Area has a mix of fields, forests and virgin prairie habitats on its 263 acres. Terry Haindfield, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and fellow co-worker and district forester Greg Heidebrink, are working to improve the forest habitat for grouse by following the area’s forest wildlife stewardship plan to create different layers of trees along the forest edge by cutting specific areas every five years with each area being cut once every 15 years.
Grouse prefer habitat with 8,000 to 12,000 tree stems per acre to live and require a mature forest of 50 trees per acre nearby where they can nest.
The trees with the high stem counts are primarily aspens that, when cut, send up shoots that create the habitat preferred by grouse, usually within two cutting rotations. The mature forest is managed to promote mast producing trees – oaks, walnuts, hickories – for the benefit deer, turkeys, squirrels and other wildlife.
“Even though grouse is the focus species, we are doing management for all species that are present,” Haindfield said.
The young tree habitat is taking shape as is the pockets of prairies on the hillsides, including some that have never seen a plow.
“With a native prairie – you really never know what’s going to show up. These areas had been used for grazing. When we take that grazing component away and run fire through it once or twice, only then will we know what insects associate with the area and what plants are there. These virgin prairies may have a certain plant that only comes up once every 5-7 years. It’s exciting to see what will show up,” he said. “It’s stunning in August with a lot of the forbs that come on that time of year.”
The prairies are found on the southern half of the area in small pockets on hillsides. The prairie acres will increase when a 120-acre tract from the Stegen family is added.
The Stegen family, of rural Decorah, spent decades caring for their land overlooking the Upper Iowa River, often in partnership with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“The Stegen’s have done a lot of the same rotational cutting in places and have much of the land in the conservation reserve program. It was their intention that the land is continues to be managed in this way and once that responsibility is transferred to the DNR, we will honor those wishes,” Haindfield said.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation purchased the parcel from the Stegen’s. The Iowa DNR is in the process of acquiring it from the Heritage Foundation.
Adding the 120-acre Stegen tract to Falcon Springs Wildlife Area and a Winneshiek County Conservation Board managed area to the north, will create a larger complex that may start to attract the attention of deer and turkey hunters, squirrel and, hopefully, ruffed grouse hunters.