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Mt. Sterling, Iowa - The Fox River Wildlife Area is about as far off the beaten path as person can get without getting totally lost. The public hunting area in southern Van Buren County is on the way to nowhere and except for some nonresidents who show up each deer season, it doesn’t get too many visitors.
Just over the hill past the small town of Mt. Sterling – happily unincorporated since 2012 – is the 800 plus acre mix of upland, wetland, bottomland timber and emerging oak savanna.
Fox River supports all types of wildlife year-round from muskrats to otters, deer to rabbits and turkeys to pheasants, quail, trumpeter swans, bobcats and more. It’s a stopover on the migration route for songbirds and waterfowl including a good number of trumpeter swans.
“It’s a great place for someone who wants to watch waterfowl or several species of birds that pass through,” said Jeff Glaw, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The Iowa DNR and NRCS began to transition Fox River from pasture to prairie and to take advantage of the natural layout to install wetlands on the bottomland to catch any runoff from the prairie after the first parcel was acquired in 1997. Twenty years and a few acquisitions later, Fox River has grown and developed into an impressive public wild place, thanks in part to Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Resource Enhancement and Protection who provided funds to help build this area.
Glaw has been managing Fox River since 1999 and points out the different transformative habitat projects on this muggy late June morning.
“The upland is planted back to native prairie and we burned it this spring,” he said, looking at a field with pale purple coneflower, partridge pea and other natives starting to express themselves. Shingle oaks ring this section of prairie which provides excellent quail habitat.
Springtime will find mushroom hunters searching for morels along the abandoned railroad right of way running through the north end, and turkey hunters tucked into the edge of the trees waiting for a tom to come by.
Beyond the trees near the gravel road to the north are fields planted to wheat with clover seeded beneath. These fields have a series of depressions where the vegetation has been flattened, evidence that deer are bedding here. “It’ll be good browse,” Glaw said.
Fox River is surrounded by private land that’s been leased for exclusive access to hunt deer. The public area provides access to the same deer herd and offers a similar hunting experience for no additional cost.
The combination of habitat and location is also attractive to some of the more vulnerable species, like slender glass lizards, red shouldered hawks, and the Indiana and northern long-eared bats. It also supports various pollinators and important insects like various dragonflies and damselflies.
Fox River has a series of connected wetlands on the bottomland that attracts waterfowl, otters, bullfrogs and more. The main wetland is alive with activity.
Blue birds bounce from tree to tree; a green heron flushes and a common egret and great blue heron survey the water below from a dead tree high above. A wood duck swims nervously to the safety of the vegetation. A muskrat uses his hut to playfully splash in the water.
While the wetlands aren’t managed to support fish, Glaw will find largemouth bass, bluegills and other species during their late summer drawdowns. A beachball sized cloud of young of the year bullheads moves in unison just below the surface near the southeast corner of the main wetland.
The Fox River area was once a travel corridor for native populations that used the area hundreds of years ago. Given its terrain, that’s understandable.
After spending a day at Fox River, visitors have been known to stop in to AJs, on the south side of Mt. Sterling, to enjoy its pork tenderloin.