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MILES, Iowa - Life along the Mississippi River is rarely boring. Case in point: the 4,000-acre Green Island Wildlife Area, in Jackson County.
Situated at the confluence of the Maquoketa and Mississippi rivers, Green Island is a popular bird watching location, duck and deer hunting spot, and, increasingly, a paddler destination.
Curt Kemmerer has been the wildlife biologist responsible for managing Green Island for the past nine years and for seven of those years, the area has been flooded.
“It’s difficult to get much management done with all the flooding,” he said. “Flooding has a compounding effect - the prolonged flood changes the historic vegetation beds, creating open spaces where invasives can get their start.”
And 2019 has been a bad year for flooding on the Mississippi River.
The flood came early and stayed for months, overtopping roads and parking lots, drowning Canada goose nests and washing out food plots on the bottoms intended for migrating ducks. The high value buttonbush on the wetland is starting to disappear and trees are showing stress. For habitat diversity, most all that remains is what can handle the flood – bulrush and smartweed.
Once a waterfowl hunting destination filling boat ramps with 100 or more duck boat trailers, the loss of habitat has reduced that number to about 25. While waterfowl hunting isn’t what it once was, there is a project on the horizon to rehabilitate and enhance the habitat on the area through a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The multi-year project includes dredging to create deeper water overwintering areas for fish and use the dredge materials to create islands. It includes establishing floodplain forests and improving the water control structures.
“Ideally we would have pumps that could pump in two directions to put water on and take water off certain areas to create food and cover for migrating waterfowl,” he said.
With the river not currently cooperating, Kemmerer has shifted his attention to improving the habitat on higher ground.
His crew, who operates from the office at the base of a bluff at Green Island, is developing a cedar tree planting for winter cover on top of a ridge. In about five years the trees will be tall enough to offer wildlife an escape from the snow, ice and cold of winter. Next to the cedars is a small area being converted into a field of native grasses. The young area is alive with bugs and grasshoppers which is exactly the high protein needed by young turkeys and other birds.
“This is our one little spot that’s not on the river floodplain,” he said.
This winter, the focus will shift to improving timber stands, removing sumac and other not-target tree species to allow the mast producing trees – oaks and walnuts – some space to grow. Kemmerer said they are working on a forest stewardship plan that will help manage the timber resource on Green Island, including creating brushy transition along the timber edge, using a management technique to eliminate non-target tree species but allowing that tree to remain standing to provide habitat for woodpeckers, bats, owls and other wildlife, and help direct invasive species removal.
The Iowa DNR acquired 371 acres in 2017 that were impacted when the dam at Lake Delhi failed in 2010, emptying the lake into the Maquoketa River which blew through a levee, flowed for a mile, then exited back through the levee and into the Maquoketa River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the cost to fix the levee around $600,000.
Four of the five landowners impacted by the breach decided they had had enough.
A Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnerships application submitted to the NRCS received funding that would allow landowners to voluntarily enroll their eligible land into easements to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on their properties. Wetland reserve easements enabled landowners to successfully reduce impacts from flooding, recharge groundwater, enhance and protect wildlife habitat and provide outdoor recreational and educational opportunities.
The four landowners accepted the offer creating a permanent easement. They eventually sold the land to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation who sold it to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Researchers are interested in studying the ecosystem of reconnecting backwater floodplain to the river on this acquisition.
“We’ve created a pretty neat corridor for wildlife and the public enjoys it either through the lens of a camera or scope on a shotgun,” Kemmerer said.
All of Green Island is in the closed Canada goose zone except the newly acquired 371 acres. The new acquisition is west of Hwy. 52, placing it outside of the closed goose zone.
First REAP Project. Green Island was awarded the first grant from a new state fund supporting cultural and natural resources created by the Iowa Legislature in 1989. The Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) fund provided more than $1.2 million to Green Island for wetland development.
Optical illusion – the Mississippi River bends around the north side of Green Island, which means at this location, it’s flowing from west to east.
Green Island has seen an increase in use by paddlers. Jackson County Conservation Board leads organized paddling events for paddlers of various skill levels.
The Iowa DNR has partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop Green Island, and Ducks Unlimited who helped design the sub impoundments.