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Iowa Bird Conservation Area Program

Within the last two decades, alarming declines in a large number of species of North American birds have led to the emergence of national and international initiatives dedicated to conservation of game and nongame birds. Various conservation programs or plans aimed at individual groups of declining birds are gathering under the umbrella of North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) to conserve "all birds in all habitats." As part of this initiative and in an effort to protect dwindling populations of many Iowa birds, Iowa's Bird Conservation Area (BCA) Program was established by the DNR Wildlife Bureau in 2001.

What is a BCA?

The Bird Conservation Area concept was first proposed by the Midwest Working Group of Partners In Flight (PIF) to maintain populations of breeding grassland birds. That has since been expanded to include birds breeding in a variety of habitats, including grassland, wetland, woodland, and savanna. This concept is backed by research that suggests viable bird populations require conservation efforts at a landscape-oriented level.

The present model BCA encompasses at least 10,000 acres of public and/or private lands that includes approximately 30% of the area as key bird habitat. For instance, in a designated grassland BCA, at least 25-30% of the total land cover should be some type of grassland. Each BCA also should include a large "core" area of protected high-quality habitat (typically at least 20% of the area), with a minimum 2,000 acre core area targeted. Around this core are private lands, plus additional public tracts, managed for good bird habitat or at least maintained to be "neutral" in how they affect bird life. Many of these outlying parcels should be 100 acres or more of contiguous targeted habitat to complete a "matrix" of quality habitat for specific priority birds. (see the Iowa BCA Guidance Document for details of history, current status, and future direction of this BCA Program).

Value of BCAs

Bird watching, or birding, is one of North America's fastest growing pastimes, with an estimated 50 - 70 million participants in the United States. These and other associated activities benefit the economies of those regions where they occur. For example, a recent survey by US Fish & Wildlife Service found that well over one million Iowans watch wildlife each year, and Iowa residents and nonresidents spend at least $4 00 million on wildlife watching in Iowa each year. Wildlife watching expenditures have grown in the U.S. by over 50% since 1991. Special highway and recreational area maps guide birders along "birding trails," and bird festivals and guided birding field trips are offered by a growing number of commercial firms and conservation organizations and agencies. Bird Conservation Areas already draw the attention of eco-tourism to Iowa, with economic gain for the area motels, restaurants, and other businesses in the BCA vicinity. For example, Lucas County, which contains portions of two Stephens Forest BCA’s, sponsored a “Big Day of Birding” in May 2016 and a “Birding Festival” in May 2017.

The Iowa DNR is moving forward with its efforts to designate special areas of Iowa as BCAs. Such a designation is designed to enhance habitat toward the goal of all-bird conservation in Iowa. There is a strong proponent of building partnerships. If we are to be successful managing landscapes for Iowa's birds (and other wildlife), there needs to be a continuation of strong cooperation between agencies, private conservation organizations, and private landowners.

These partnerships are key to keeping the landscape alive with the sights and songs of birds.

Iowa's BCAs

NABCI defines three Bird Conservation Regions (BCRs), or ecological regions for Iowa. These are: Eastern Tallgrass Prairie, Prairie Potholes, and Prairie-Hardwood Transition. Representative BCAs have been designated for each of these three regions, and tables listing priority bird species suites have been created for each of these regions.

In 2001, Iowa DNR designated its first BCA, the Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area. Located in the
Eastern Tallgrass Prairie BCR in Ringgold County, this also was the first grassland BCA to be dedicated in the U.S. Greater Prairie-Chickens serve as the umbrella species for this BCA, and by managing for prairie chickens, all Iowa
grassland birds will benefit. This includes such species as Henslow's Sparrow, Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper,  Loggerhead Shrike, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Northern Harrier, and Short-eared Owl.

Twenty-three more BCAs, plus one Amphibian and Reptile Conservation area, have since been designated across the state. Spring Run Wetlands BCA (Dickinson County) was named in 2002. In 2003, Broken Kettle Grasslands BCA, north of Sioux City in Plymouth County, was dedicated in the spring (see featured activity - April 2003), and Effigy Mounds - Yellow River Forest BCA (Allamakee and Clayton counties), became an official Bird Conservation Area in July. Union Hills Grasslands BCA (Cerro Gordo County) and Iowa River Corridor BCA (Tama, Benton, and Iowa counties) were dedicated (see featured activity - May 2004) during 2004. Within 2005, the Chichaqua-Neal Smith Grassland BCA was dedicated in central Iowa, and the Kellerton Grasslands BCA boundaries were expanded to accommodate the large landscape needs of the Greater Prairie-Chickens calling that area home.

During 2006, Iowa's second largest public forest, Shimek Forest, became an official BCA. Dewey's Pasture Wetland Complex, perhaps Iowa's oldest and most important northwestern Iowa marsh complex became a BCA in July 2006; and the Raccoon River Savanna BCA (see featured activity - December 2006), established around privately owned White Rock Conservancy land in Guthrie County, was dedicated in December 2006. In 2007, both northeast Iowa's Wapsi River Corridor and Eagle Lake Wetlands (Hancock and Winnebago counties) were named as new BCAs. Stephens Forest BCA (Clarke and Lucas counties) became the third Iowa forest bird conservation area in December 2008. With its 6,600+ acres of state forest, it supplies nesting habitat for well over 100 bird species.

In 2009, the Lower Morse Lake Grasslands BCA in Wright County was dedicated. It is one of very few places in
Iowa where a person can walk for several continuous miles without leaving public land and where one can still experience the rolling prairies of the region that existed before its settlement by Euro-Americans. Sand Creek
Woodland Savanna BCA (Decatur, Ringgold, and Union counties) was dedicated in early 2010. The boundary of the Sand Creek BCA is within just a few miles of the Kellerton Grasslands BCA to the southwest and Stephens Forest BCA to the northeast. Ideally, these three BCAs will one day be connected to create a large corridor of valuable habitat.

The Boone Forks Woodland BCA was dedicated in the fall of 2010 and encompasses the area where the Boone River meets the Des Moines River in Hamilton and Webster counties.  This BCA provides rich habitat for nesting woodland birds, having more bird species of Greatest Conservation Need than most other BCAs.  The spring of 2011 followed with the establishment of Cayler Prairie BCA in Dickinson County.  Cayler Prairie is the first BCA centered on a State Preserve, and it is also a National Natural Landmark.  This BCA includes a large amount of
protected grassland that is critical for a high percentage of the declining migratory and nesting grassland bird species in Iowa.

Each BCA landscape hosts a signature group of birds, many of which are experiencing notable population declines.
With the potential for numerous BCAs in Iowa, it will remain a high priority for the Iowa DNR to continue designating Iowa's best bird habitats as Bird Conservation Areas. Sedan Bottoms became Iowa’s 18th BCA in July 2013.  It is centered on the Chariton River in southern Appanoose County and includes Sharon Bluffs State Park and other important grassland, savanna, woodland, and wetland habitats.  Sedan Bottoms BCA and the Iowa River Corridor BCA both host more bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need than all other current BCAs, which reflects these areas’ importance to so many declining bird species.

In 2014, Iowa added its 19th Bird Conservation Area, Stephens State Forest-Thousand Acres. This is also the 4th
BCA that is centered on a state forest (see BCA map).  While this ~50,000 acre BCA (in Lucas, Monroe, and Marion counties) is comprised of about 41% woodland land cover, it also includes about 40% grassland land cover – making this area important to both nesting forest species like the state Endangered Red-shouldered Hawk and state Threatened grassland birds like Henslow’s Sparrow. Records indicate that at least 114 of Iowa’s regular nesting bird
species occur here, and this area provides habitat for about half of Iowa’s migrant birds.

Waterman Prairie BCA was dedicated in March 2015 in conjunction with O’Brien County’s Bald Eagle Watch celebration. Centered in the rolling hill topography associated with Waterman Creek and the Little Sioux River, land cover is a sprawling mix of native prairies and Bur Oak Savannas. It includes important areas such as Buena Vista County Conservation Park, the Bertram Reservation, Tuttle WMA, and Wittrock Indian Village State Preserve (a National Historic Landmark). American Indians hunted Bison, Elk, Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse in these valleys for thousands of years before Euro-American settlers arrived. To date, 253 species of birds have been identified in this BCA, with at least 108 of those species nesting.

In October 2015 Lake Sugema-Lacey-Keosauqua BCA was dedicated (BCA #21) in Van Buren County. The Des Moines River and its tributary, Chequest Creek, serve as the northern boundary for this BCA, and the area extends south to the Missouri border. This 51,492 acre area is especially unique because of its high percentage of quality wildlife habitat. Grasslands cover 43% of the area, while woodland habitat makes up 35%. This BCA was selected particularly for its value to declining grassland birds – notably the state Threatened Henslow’s Sparrow. Other Greatest Conservation Need grassland birds that occur here (in good numbers) include Northern Bobwhite, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and Bell’s Vireo. Notable Savanna birds that nest here include Red-headed Woodpecker and the Iowa Endangered Barn Owl. Rarer woodland nesters include the state Threatened Red-shouldered Hawk, Kentucky Warbler, and Black-billed Cuckoo.

In conjunction with the 40th annual Loess Hills Prairie Seminar, on June 3, 2016 the Loess Hills BCA became Iowa’s 22nd BCA. It is centered in the rolling hill topography of the Loess Hills physiographic region of western Iowa (in Monona and Harrison counties), a landform created by windblown loess from the Missouri River bottomland and piled 200-300 feet deep. Once near totally covered by prairie vegetation, land cover now is a mix of prairie, bur oak savanna, and woodland habitats – interspersed with some wetlands. Bird diversity in the “hills” is exceptional, with 249 species of birds identified within this BCA - and at least 111 of those species nesting. Of particular importance is the fact that 80 of Iowa’s 112 Birds of Greatest Conservation Need can be found inhabiting this unique prairie-savanna-woodland landscape.

Indian Bluffs-Pictured Rocks BCA became Iowa BCA #23 in May 2017. Located in the northeastern edge of the Southern Iowa Drift Plain landform region (Jones County), this BCA is centered on the South Fork Maquoketa River, which carved through 430 million years-old Silurian dolomite, forming the tall steep bluffs and rugged topography that contributes to this area’s uniqueness. American Indians inhabited this area for thousands of years, leaving behind rock shelters and campsites as evidence of previous occupation. Forest and grassland components contribute to exceptional bird diversity, with 243 bird species identified; of which 79 are Species of Greatest Conservation Need and 111 are nesters. Jones County Conservation Board deserves special credit for the creation of this BCA.

The completion of the Lower Loess Hills BCA currently is pending. Including portions of Fremont and Mills counties and sitting at the lower end of the unique Loess Hills landform region, this proposed BCA contains 86,758 acres, of which 15,918 acres are permanently protected. With 282 bird species identified within it, including 128 nesting birds and 92 Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), no other BCA includes as many total species, as many nesting species, and as many SGCN birds. The area also includes a variety of other unique animal and plant species, making this particular BCA one of the most biodiverse areas within the state.

The proposed Soap Creek-Stephens Forest BCA will encompass about 130,000 acres of grassland and woodland habitat within Davis, Wapello, Appanoose, and Monroe counties. This will be Iowa’s third largest BCA and represents another area with very high biodiversity. Spanning 34 miles from Moravia to Eldon, this BCA includes much of the Soap Creek watershed and about 15 miles of the Des Moines River. With habitat for over 100 nesting bird species and another 150 bird species that require stopover habitat during migration, this BCA also provides the necessary requirements for nursery colonies of Federally Endangered Indiana Bats and most other Iowa bat species.

As each BCA is designated, it also is classified as an Iowa Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA). Audubon’s Important
Bird Area Program is part of a global effort to identify and conserve areas that are vital to birds and other biodiversity.