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That narrow access lane off a dead-end road is the only way in and out of the Winford Wildlife Area, a 637-acre floodplain grassland, just north of Oskaloosa.
The public wildlife area was created after the Skunk River blew out a levee in 2008 and flooded adjacent crop fields.
These fields had been farmed since the early 1900s, but the levee giving out was the final straw. Farmers working the sandy, silty soils decided it was time to get rid of the headache and enroll this land into the Wetland Reserve Program.
The first parcel was acquired by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2012; the second in 2016. The new public area was named for an old crossing on the Skunk River, just to the west.
“These bottomland areas take a lot of work, depending on what we want them to be – a grassland or in trees,” said Jeff Glaw, wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR’s Sugema Unit. “In this case, we wanted it to be mostly grassland.”
He said work started in earnest when the DNR contracted with a company to spray 300 acres of small willows, cottonwoods and maples from a helicopter in early September 2018. They left 150 acres of trees to create a riparian corridor.
Prescribed fire is used to manage the grassland areas to slow down invasive Reed canary grass and this past year, 500 acres here were burned. “With the dry weather this year, we met our objectives with our controlled burn” he said.
Staff will use a grinder to remove trees that reappear in the grassland.
The results from the spraying, grinding and fire is a highly productive public area supporting a quality deer and pheasant population. On this sweltering late August morning, birds are singing and a few young deer just east of the parking lot keep a cautious eye on the unwanted visitors.
“This area has some of the better pheasant counts in my district and has some really nice deer in there,” Glaw said.
He said he gets phone calls asking about Winford because of its size and location in Mahaska County.
“When you look at it from an aerial photo, it’s a habitat oasis surrounded by ag fields,” he said. “It hasn’t been around very long but people are finding it.”
Although Iowa is currently in the middle of a significant drought, the Winford area does have a number of old oxbows and shallow basins that hold water if and when it floods.
“When it floods all the basins hold water and attracts puddle ducks,” he said. “On the right year, with annual vegetation growth and water in there, it could be amazing.”