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Ackley, Iowa - Two miles northeast of Ackley off 320th Street blacktop is one of the rarest of Iowa’s habitat - roughly 60 acres of high-quality remnant prairie that is part of the Blackmun Prairie Wildlife Area – and is a popular site for prairie enthusiasts.
“There are not many sites like this left in the state,” said Jason Auel, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It’s a real unique area. The prairie changes throughout the year as well as from year to year. It’s a great place to watch pollinators and grassland birds, and hunt pheasants in the fall.”
Blackmun Prairie Wildlife Area consists of an old homestead and farm in southwest Butler County on the Franklin County line.
Heading past the homestead area, the scenic, rolling hills of the old pasture ground was too steep to effectively row crop so what remained has been some nice habitat for pollinators. The rocky, sandy soils on the slopes has side oats gramma and little blue stem on it. The top of the hill has big blue stem, leadplant, purple prairie clover and Indian grass that is used by pheasants for bugging and good nesting.
“That’s why it’s a good pheasant spot,” Auel said. “The nests at the top of the hill won’t wash out.”
Auel’s crew is working to expand the prairie by removing unwanted trees that were part of the original farmstead, including the invasive and tough-as-nails to kill, Siberian elm. Siberian elm was often planted around homesteads years ago because it grew fast and made a good windbreak. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get rid of.
“You cut it off, and it sends up sucker shoots. You can’t grind it because the stumps have to get treated with herbicide and the herbicide has to be applied at the right time of year or it won’t die,” Auel said.
The trees on the property were part of the original farm grove. Once the tree removal is completed, only the quality oaks with a few hickories will remain, creating kind of an oak savanna around the homestead, protecting the remnant prairie.
The crews have been working to expand the prairie by dividing it into three sections and each spring treating one of the sections with prescribed fire to get rid of unwanted trees and promote the prairie.
Staff dedicate time in the winter to remove the seed trees that keep reseeding the prairie. The DNR has partnered with Conservation Corps of Iowa who spent four days earlier this year cutting trees and treating the stumps and their positive impact on the area can be seen from the gravel road running along the west side of Blackmun Prairie.
“It’s a hard fight to get rid of Siberian elm with remnant prairie on the site,” Auel said. “We take extra precautions because of the remnant prairie and that means it will take longer to reach our habitat goal, but we’ll get there.”
The 177-acre Blackmun Prairie Wildlife Area is a fairly new public hunting area. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation acquired Blackmun Prairie in 2005, and then sold it to the DNR in 2007. The main access is from the south end parking lot, by the crop field. A good portion of the crop field will eventually return to prairie. The rest will remain as a crop food plot for wildlife.