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Hidden behind a levee paralleling I-29, six miles northwest of Hamburg in the Missouri River floodplain, is the nearly 1,300-acre M. U. Payne Wildlife Area.
Given its location, flooding is a fairly regular occurrence and an important source of water to recharge the shallow wetlands that make the public wildlife area so popular for shorebirds and waterfowl during the spring and fall migrations.
“If we have water in here in the spring, it can be a good place to go kayaking and great for water bird watching,” said Matt Dollison, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Nishnabotna Wildlife Unit in southwest Iowa.
The area became public after the 2011 flood when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought the land from the Payne and Moyer families so it could move the levee further east to hold more Missouri River floodwater and better protect nearby private property and public infrastructure.
The new 2.6-mile-long levee section was topped with gravel making it an excellent place to hike or ride a mountain bike. The only access is from the parking lot on the southeast side of the area.
“The levee is a great place to view migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, deer or hear pheasants, quail, and more,” said Dollison. “Riverton is a hub for birders, but M. U. Payne is somewhere they need to work in to their rotation, along with Copeland Bend and Forney Lake. It’s a great place to watch the spring duck migration - throw in a kayak and you can get up close and personal with the birds.”
With its location adjacent to the Missouri River in Fremont County, several western shorebird species, like American avocets, Wilson’s phalaropes, and willets, can be found at M. U. Payne.
“M. U. Payne can be dry all summer and if we get two days of 16+ foot elevation on the Missouri River, many of the excavations will be full,” he said. “If the river doesn’t flood it too high, it can be really nice in here, we could have 400 acres of shallow water, making for great duck hunting conditions.”
Flooding changes the landscape
Flooding is fairly common here with water reaching the bottom of the levee five or six times since August 2013.
“After the 2019 flood, the area resembled a moonscape – there was bare sand as far as you could see” he said. “Management planning can be a challenging when you don’t know whether to expect an eight-year gap between catastrophic flood events, like the last two, or closer to the almost 60-year gap that followed the last flood of similar magnitude in 1952. That being said though there was a silver lining, because the flood created a huge amount of specialized habitat for rare species, and almost none of the wetland excavations were impacted by the sand deposition.”
Rare species found
A hispid cotton rat was found at M. U. Payne in 2016 by a crew working as part of the Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring (MSIM) program within the Wildlife Diversity Program. The only other time it was found in Iowa was in owl pellets at nearby Waubonsie State Park in the 1970s.
Several other rare and important species were found at M. U. Payne by the MSIM staff from 2014 to 2016 and others since. These include piping plovers, king rails, black terns, least terns, northern harriers and wild indigo duskywing butterflies.
Paddlers take note
Need a stopover spot on a Missouri River paddling adventure? The Hamburg-Mitchell boat ramp is only three miles downriver from M. U. Payne so people could throw a boat in there and pretty quickly get to the very far end of the property which is almost two miles from the nearest vehicle access. That area along the river is also where visitors would find the best mushroom hunting.