Fires and Tractors in the wetland

DSC_0873The extreme southwest corner of Iowa, at the border with the State of Missouri and the Missouri River, lies the Lower Hamburg Wildlife Management Area. And this is a good spot to consider what “management” might entail.

It’s been said that “wildlife management is really people management,” and that’s an oversimplification—but it contains truth. So, entering this site, we find various signboards with rules and regulations. The access road into the site is literally on the state borderline, and hunters must be aware of the regulations: for example, a deer on one side of the road may be “fair game,” but cannot be hunted legally on the other; or perhaps, using one weapon (bow-and-arrow) is OK on one side, but another (say, muzzleloader) must be used on the other. And the regulations will change with the calendar (hunting seasons). Having the correct permit (State resident or not, etc.) will be important. And numerous considerations beyond those.

Management for wildlife is also about habitat management. At Lower Hamburg, I saw river flow control structures, and nesting structures for songbirds, and the land appeared to be worked with machinery and fire. Let’s take a closer look.

On the river itself, the Corps of Engineers but in a wall of rock (rip-rap) with a narrow opening; this “chute” is designed to slow the current, widen out the channel, and create habitat for spawning fish. Of course, shaping flow will also include changes to water chemistry and other hydrologic effects, like the transmission or deposition of sediments, so channel structure like sand bars will be created too. The sign at the site hinted at the big government project on this section of the Missouri river, which I later learned involves endangered species, flood control, and likely a hundred other considerations. Management, indeed!


The big green tractor is useful primarily for putting in plants we want (food plots with crop species would be a common example, or perhaps prairie seedings) and for removing plants we don’t want. This particular machine had a “brush hog” mowing attachment. Woody plants are literally mowed down, clearing the ground for herbaceous plants to thrive. Although parked on the Missouri side of the street, such activity is common in Iowa as well. In a phone conversation, Matt at the Iowa DNR told me about food plots with turnips and clover, and that his office is discussing ideas about timber management, too.

Any consideration of timber management should consider fire. The site had obviously burned in the past, and both standing dead trees (“snags”) and burned logs had charred surfaces. Matt suggested the fire occurred maybe three years ago, and was not prescribed. Nevertheless, fire might have ecological benefits, such as slowing down aggressive herbaceous plants such as the grass Common Reed (Phragmites australis), a tall grass indeed: it was easily half again as tall as I stand, and elsewhere I’ve seen it even taller. The species is of interest from a plant ecology perspective, as it is a native species and an invader: many problematic stands appear to be of non-native genetic stock, an exotic version of our own native species. Unfortunately it is difficult to distinguish native and non-natives based on morphology (although they can be analyzed genetically and differentiated). I saw a small patch, hopefully this doesn’t become a problem here.


Bonus anecdote! In farm fields just outside the site, I stopped to stare and photograph Snow geese (Chen caerulescens), working their way north in Spring migration. They visit the wetlands and the Missouri River itself, gleaning food from the grain fields and honking up an incredible racket. Mainly I observed the white form (with black tips on the wings, visible as they fly over). I also noted a fair number of the gray/tan type, and even a few of the “Blue Goose, ” and I can tell you that at least with the light I had, they really did look blue! And most impressively, these birds were in huge flocks all up and down the valley, rising up like clouds in their masses. The flock I photographed must have been a million strong—I was awestruck! I paused for a while, watching the energetic swarm and listening to the overwhelming noise of their honking.

And so I marveled, thinking about the role of wetland—and wetland management—in such an impressive wonder of nature. I truly hope that professional conservationists, farmers, birdwatchers, hunters…and you, dear reader…will join in the work of managing our wetlands to ensure these birds and other denizens of the wetlands will have food, water, cover, and places to nest now, and for many years to come.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

3 thoughts on “Fires and Tractors in the wetland”

  1. There are differing opinions about putting food plots on public land in Iowa, a state where there is little public conservation land compared to most other states. And much of Iowa could be considered, in a way, to be a giant food plot already. I’ve heard that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t like to put food plots on the land they own in Iowa as much as some other agencies. Of course some Iowa public land is rowcropped anyway.

    I heard a story years ago about how some hunters pressured an Iowa county conservation board to plow up part of a native prairie remnant owned by the county so a food plot could be planted. Fortunately, the county said “no way.” Also fortunately, many hunters are far more enlightened and would never request that kind of ecological vandalism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that prairie story is mind-blowing! I’d like to think we are more and more aware of the importance of native ecological communities. I’ve heard about food plots specifically for White-tailed deer…let’s just say I have to wonder how many more deer Iowa needs! But mixed-use, native grassland (and wetlands!) we should encourage. Providing multiple benefits…


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