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One of Iowa’s newest public wildlife areas is in the backyard of Council Bluffs and outside of a few keen-eyed hunters who noticed the green signs last fall, not many people know about it.
“There’s a huge constituency in Council Bluffs with limited places to hunt and this is about five miles away,” said Matt Dollison, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The 513-acre Green Hill Wildlife Area is in the early stages of being transformed from row crops and introduced brome grass, into native prairie.
Standing on a ridge looking northwest over the Google campus, the skyline and noise of Omaha and Council Bluffs fades and the sound of Field sparrows, vesper sparrows, eastern towhees, common yellowthroats replaces the sound of traffic.
Cattle grazed on a portion of the area, but have been removed and Dollison plans to burn it next spring to see what native plants come back. Walking one of the terraces, he points to big bluestem, blazing star, purple prairie clover, leadplant, whorled milkweed and Indian grass.
“Native prairie is coming up in the brome so that tells me that when we burn this, we’ll be in business,” Dollison said. He’s working with two seed dealers and the DNR wildlife unit in Onawa to source local loess hills prairie grasses and flower seed to fill in the gaps and keep the reconstructed prairie here as close as possible to what was initially here.
The plan is to covert 20-30 acres of the former crop ground into prairie each year for the next four years. They planted a 27-acre field this spring.
“We’re going to leave about 10 percent for row crops, alfalfa, food plots and sunflowers fields, but the rest will go to prairie,” Dollison said. They’ve been working with a farmer in the area to plant the crops and sunflower fields, and to help with mowing and spraying. They plan to work with a producer to continue grazing cattle on part of the area.
“Grazing will continue to be one of the management practices here, alternating grazing with an idle year or two in between. That will help our cooperator and the disturbance will help diversify the native prairie,” he said.
Green Hill is across 221st Street (old Hwy. 275) from Folsom Point Preserve, a private preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. The preserve is home to the Great Plains skink, plains pocket mouse, ornate box turtle and Henslow’s sparrow – all species in need of more habitat. A western prairie fringed orchid has been found a mile east of Green Hill. It’s possible that once Green Hill is converted to prairie, that those species could call it home as well.
“I asked our wildlife techs to keep their eyes out for rare species when they’re working over here,” he said.
About 20 percent of Green Hill is timber and most of that is a mix of oak and hickory. Dollison will work with the district forester to write a forest wildlife management plan for the area. In the not too distant future, the trees will be gone in an effort to enhance prairie habitat, and Green Hill will look quite a bit different than it does today.
Green Hill offers visitors a chance to unwind, go hiking, birdwatching, mushroom hunting, or just to look at and enjoy the prairie. It’s also a place close to home to hunt deer, turkeys, squirrels and pheasants and quail.
Just be sure to keep a sharp eye out for the gravel access lanes off 221st Street.
Battling the invaders
Green Hill Wildlife Area has its share of unwanted invasive species and among the worst is black locust and crown vetch. It also has tree of heaven, Siberian elm and honeysuckle.
“If you cut black locust and tree of heaven and spray the cut stump, they can send suckers up from their roots and that makes them difficult to kill,” Dollison said. “We’re using a technique of spraying around the base of the trunk to kill it slowly which prevents them from sending out the suckers.”
Partners in Green Hill
The acquisition of Green Hill was years in the making and finalized on June 29, 2020, through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Iowa DNR, using multiple funding sources including the Iowa West Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pittman-Robertson.