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Turin, Iowa - Just north of the small town of Turin in central Monona County is a place where the threatened plains pocket mouse lives with legendary Iowa stags, rare plants and animals can be found, and volunteers come to help restore the landscape to more closely resemble what was here when western Iowa was settled.
Turin Wildlife Area is 1,100-acres of beautiful, rugged Iowa wilderness available for everyone to enjoy.
“It’s hard for some to imagine how easy access can be in the Loess Hills,” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Doug Chafa. “Here at Turin, old farm fields in grass are right next to oak groves that are popular places for deer and turkeys, and for hunters. If there’s an open season for turkey in the spring, hunters will be in there. There’ll be four to five gobbles out there each day.”
Chafa has been working to restore the landscape on Turin and that starts with removing cedar trees and shade tolerant trees. The bulk of the work is done using a contractor with heavy equipment and then volunteers come in to clear areas the machines can’t reach.
“Sometimes it’s hard to understand why the DNR is cutting trees,” Chafa said. “In this case, we are working to promote oak regeneration and to do that the cedars and shade tolerant trees have to go.”
Oak trees provide habitat and a high value food source for all types of wildlife, from blue jays to turkeys and from squirrels to deer. “We’re not looking at the short term here, our goal is to have that oak resource 100 years from now,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing what pops up for diversity when we clear the ridge tops and hillsides of the cedars and deciduous trees.”
While Chafa is sympathetic to the hunters whose favorite treestand tree was cut down, he’s keeping his focus on the big picture – convert the ridge tops and slopes back into prairie.
The restoration is moving at a pace of about 10 acres per year using local ecotype seed including blazing star, pale coneflower, large-flowered penstemon, silverleaf scurfpea, skeletonweed, nine-anther dalea, yucca, New England aster, locoweed and more.
The focus of the prairie restoration was not necessarily to promote rare butterfly habitat – prairie violet is to the regal fritillary what milkweed is to the monarch – but the benefits are the same. Hiking up a ridge spine, Chafa grabs seed from one of the legumes on site. State Highway 175 is off in the distance.
“We don’t manage specifically for rare butterflies – regal fritillaries, otto skippers, monarchs – but they’re here,” he said.
So are the reptiles, like six-lined racerunners, bullsnakes, fox snakes, northern line snakes, DeKay’s brownsnake and hognose snake – a species of greatest conservation need.
At nearby Sylvan Runkel State Preserve, MJ Hatfield, prairie insect enthusiast, had found a previously unidentified insect species.
“That just puts the exclamation point on it, on protecting this area,” Chafa said.
Sidebar: Turin Wildlife Area is an outdoor classroom
Whiting Community school teacher Phil Hubert brought 14 seventh graders to Turin Wildlife Area to collect plant seeds from an 80-acre prairie that would be used to increase prairie size at Turin and other nearby areas on a cool wet fall day in 2018.
Doug Chafa, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, challenged the students to see who could collect the most seeds. The students spent the better part of a school day picking seeds to fill seven ice cream buckets and had fun doing it.
“We explored a lot of it,” said Koltyn Andersen, 14. “Get dirty once you’re out there, you’ll like it. I should’ve worn Muck boots because my feet got wet.”
He and classmate Kash Paulsen, 13, both wore cowboy boots. “We’re slipping and sliding down the hill,” he said.
Cool drizzle and muddy conditions aside, both boys said they would do it again, which was what Chafa wanted to hear. “Now, the students are invested in the prairie,” he said.
Hubert has been teaching for 30 years and said he continues to look for opportunities to get kids outdoors and away from TV, computers and their phones. His students have also planted trees at a county park and participated in the Loess Hills prairie seminar. Last year was the first time he had arranged the seed collection.