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Manilla, Iowa – Just southwest of Manilla on the Crawford-Shelby County line is a 450-acre gift to Iowans who love to be outdoors.
Vern and Wilmer Petersen Wildlife Area is the former Petersen farm that was donated to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 1993 to provide public outdoor recreation all year long.
The rolling prairie with small woodlots on the southwest and north side surround a two-acre pond. That pond has been a popular place thanks to a $15,000 donation from the Crawford County Pheasants Forever chapter that allowed Boeck Construction, out of Manilla, to build and gravel an access lane to the pond this spring.
Standing at the gravel parking area near the pond, 10 blue winged teal flushed and circled a few times before disappearing over the west ridge. Two small islands served as goose nesting sites producing three broods this year. Pheasants are heard crowing to the north.
“This area was a grassland and we’re going to manage it as a grassland to benefit pheasants and quail and all other grassland birds,” said Doug Chafa, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR. Chafa has been working the Crawford County PF chapter to reclaim the prairie by pulling cedar and other non-target trees encroaching on the area. The trees are stacked in piles just waiting for the right winter conditions to get burned.
Crawford County Pheasants Forever has donated $14,000 over the past three years - matching the DNR’s investment - to pull and shear trees off the landscape. “The PF donation has doubled what we have gotten done for tree removal,” Chafa said.
Once a section of the land is cleared, its farmed for two or three years as a process to get rid of the brome and to prepare the soil for a diverse mix of prairie grasses and flowers. Chafa applies the income from farming process to tree removal.
The DNR uses a local ecotype prairie seed mix from its Prairie Resource Center that is broadcast over the still frozen ground. For the first two years, it looks like a weedy mess, but in year three, the prairie begins to express itself.
“It just gets better as it gets older,” said Jon Saunders, of Manilla and member of the Crawford County Pheasants Forever chapter.
Looking out over the prairie, visitors will see wild bergamot, gray-headed coneflower, compass plant, tick trefoil, common milkweed, cup plant, sideoats grama, little bluestem, Indian grass, partridge pea, Virginia rye, rattlesnake master, black-eyed Susan, oxeye sunflowers and more.
Because it was installed at different times, the prairie is in different stages of maturity offering short and sparse habitat to thick and deep habitat that benefit birds of different species. Chafa uses prescribed fire on different sections each year with a goal of burning the entire area every five years.
As the brome is replaced with native prairie, wildlife has responded. Quail and pheasants are here as well as more grassland birds, like bobolinks and dickcissels. The first record of a prairie skink in Shelby County was confirmed here in the spring of 2019. The five- to six-inch long reptile is considered a species in decline in Iowa.
“I like to see the habitat,” Saunders said. “I like to see if for the kids. We host youth days out here. I like the public hunting component – it’s nice habitat to hunt. And it’s good for out of state hunters.”
Vern and Wilmer Petersen
The Petersen’s had a second house on their farmstead where they would host visitors who had taken the train in to attend local cattle auctions. They would bring in live bands to entertain their guests. When the auction was over, the visitors and their cattle would return home on the train together.
The Petersen family had an interest in conservation and improving water quality and decided to donate their farm to the Iowa DNR for everyone to enjoy. With a small pond, remote and scenic setting, with opportunities to fish and learn to paddle, hike through rolling hills, enjoy grassland birds and prairie plants, their vision is becoming reality.
“I’d hate to guess how many people hunt this area,” Saunders said. “Come by every morning on the weekend during the season and there’s at least one group hunting it. There’s a lot of traffic to the pond, especially from those who are less mobile.”
Chafa rotates sunflower plots around the area, making sure the fields are fairly close to the road. A former sunflower field on the south side was planted with a cover crop after the dove season then allowed to go idle. It came up in weeds that produce a lot of seeds and provides overhead cover over bare ground that is great for pheasant chicks and quail to run and feed on bugs out of sight.