Tama/Marshall County Pheasants Forever dedicates public lands project near Montour
Oxbow Bottoms Wildlife Management Area opens to the public
It was a ceremony that would have made the late Iowa conservationist Aldo Leopold proud.
This past Thursday evening just north of Montour along the Iowa River, a small group of land stewards including local members of Marshall/Tama County Pheasants Forever officially dedicated the new, 251-acre Oxbow Bottoms Wildlife Management Area in a ceremony that invoked much of Leopold’s belief that humanity has a moral and ethical duty to care for the land.
“It’s been a long time and a lot of work and a lot of coordination,” said Eric Sytsma, Southern Iowa Regional Representative for Pheasants Forever (PF), as he opened the Aug. 25 dedication ceremony, standing on a mowed firebreak next to a hay bale propping up the property’s new entrance sign.
Gathered around Sytsma was a group of about 30 individuals representing not just local PF chapter members and volunteers, but also Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) staff and Tama County Conservation staff, as well as a few interested Montour residents.
“It is really, really exciting to see this project [completed],” Sytsma continued. “This is our fourth completed project in the state in the last couple of years. We’ve got five more projects in different parts of the state we’re working on right now. … It is just absolutely exciting to see this program grow – to see another piece of ground that all of us can come back to this fall and walk around on.”
The program Sytsma referred to is a relatively new funding mechanism for PF called Build a Wildlife Area. Under the program, PF works with local partners to raise funds to acquire and restore critical wildlife habitat and open it to public recreation including hunting.
Oxbow Bottoms WMA is mostly comprised of flood-prone upland prairie habitat cradled against the west side of the Iowa River near U.S. 30.
The property’s former owner, farmer Richard Frundle of Montour, attempted to farm the acres through the years but due to flooding eventually enrolled some of it in the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) – an easement the property retains to this day.
After PF purchased the property from Frundle under the Build a Wildlife Area program, the Iowa DNR was then able to acquire the parcel from PF using grant funding.
Following his formal remarks, Sytsma opened the floor to those in attendance to which long-time Montour resident Jessie Calvert provided his perspective as a nearby resident.
“I grew up right here in the river bottom,” Calvert said. “They’ve never been able to get corn out of here, it’s always been flooded. So, it’s really exciting – what’s happening right now – for the wood ducks, for the pheasants, for everyone.”
Iowa River Wildlife Unit biologist Steve Woodruff, who oversees eight counties in Iowa for the DNR including Tama and Marshall, also spoke briefly to the group.
Woodruff and his team have been working for the better part of a year on the property, he said, but there is much left to do.
“We just signed this last fall,” Woodruff said. “Our two biggest challenges managing areas [like Oxbow Bottoms] is reed canary grass – a cool season grass – it’s very competitive and invasive in a way. … But we’ll do our best with burns.”
Woodruff said the second biggest challenge is with early succession, cottonwoods primarily, which have been quickly taking over much of Oxbow Bottoms. Through both managed burns – which they plan to begin next year – and then mowing and some chemical treatment, Woodruff and his staff hope to stop as much of the spread as they can in the years ahead.
As Woodruff spoke, the grasses behind him rustled in the wind, shining under the late sun of the day. Native prairie flowers including blooming cardinal flower and ironweed also peppered the landscape.
Later in the evening following a hearty tailgate meal of fresh tenderloins and fixings courtesy of Marshalltown’s Clare Willsher and his food truck, Woodruff led the group on a tour of the property along the roughly two-mile, mowed firebreak loop.
As the sun began to set, the group reached the eastern edge of Oxbow Bottoms. Both Woodruff and Sytsma along with several other individuals climbed to the top of a berm that abuts the Iowa River there in order to take in the full expanse of the property – the rolling hills around Montour framing the space.
“Everybody can agree that we need more public access,” Sytsma said. “This is the core of our mission – more public access to wildlife habitat. … Anything we can do to make more [public] access [to land] in Iowa is a wonderful achievement.”
With Iowa ranked practically at the bottom for public access to land in the United States, Oxbow Bottoms is certainly a gem not just for those Tama County residents who enjoy the outdoors but for all Iowans.
Oxbow Bottoms Wildlife Management Area can be accessed just east of the turn to Montour (Cty Hwy T47) along the south side of U.S. 30. The property is open for public recreational use including hunting and fishing.