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It’s not often that the opportunity to build a large wildlife area from the ground up comes along, but that’s what’s happening right now at Heritage Hills Wildlife Area on the Madison and Clarke County line.
The new and growing public area was created in 2017, when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) purchased nearly 400 acres of rolling southern Iowa land from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Two parcels were added this fiscal year – 139 acres and 135 acres – growing Heritage Hills to nearly 700 acres. Including the parcels in the pipeline will push the area past 1,000 acres.
And it is impressive.
The area's management plan is to develop a large native grassland, with oak savanna, and a timber component. There’s also a pond and small prairie stream that flows through the northern portion of the area.
Under a clear blue sky, dickcissels are bouncing in and out of the grasses, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and pheasants can be heard calling from all around and all this is under the watchful eye of a soaring red-tailed hawk.
“This is the classic ‘if you build it, they will come,’” said Heath Van Waus, wildlife technician with the Iowa DNR. The Iowa DNR is partnering with the local Pheasants Forever chapter, Iowa Wild Turkey Federation and the state’s forest initiative to do the work.
Over the winter, the partners completed 60-70 acres of tree and brush removal, oak savanna improvement and created a transition zone along the timber edges to benefit quail, rabbits and other species. Some trees were cut partially through and left to stand to provide habitat for wildlife species that depend on dead trees for habitat, like woodpeckers, bats and wood ducks.
The transition to native grasses and wildflowers started in the winter of 2017 and each year as the prairie continues to develop; additional grassland bird species would arrive.
“This is the first year that the prairie will really express itself and we will see what grass and wildflower species makes it,” said Van Waus. “We’ll continue grassland management and creating habitat that should continue attracting grassland birds and, we hope, birders.”
Sitting 45 miles south of Des Moines, Heritage Hills has the potential to be one of the more popular wildlife areas in the state.
“It’s coming along,” Van Waus said. “We plan to burn the grassland next year that will really get the prairie going. The sky’s the limit for what Heritage Hills can be. It’s fun to start from scratch, develop a long-term plan and provide the best habitat for wildlife and for the recreation users.”
Based on the amount of pheasant deer and turkey hunting that’s already occurred at Heritage Hills, it's well on its way to becoming a destination.
The Iowa DNR conducted a study in 2016 using acoustic equipment and mist nets to record bat sounds and trap bats to identify what species were using the area. The study confirmed the presence of the Indiana bat and the northern long eared bat – both either federally or state listed endangered species – as well as big brown bat and red bat.
The combination of food availability, waters sources, travel corridors and roosting sites is likely the reason for the diverse bat community. The presence of the two endangered bat species was important because it impacts the management techniques used on the area.
“That’s why our tree cutting dates are when they are so we don’t interfere with them,” he said.