May’s Postcard from Iowa: Field notes from Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt

On Monday, April 23, a small group of Council staff and friends visited the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt in Northeast Polk County.  Our host and tour guide for the day was Loren Lown, a natural resource specialist with the Polk County Conservation Board.

Loren Lown is surrounded by four other individuals in a circle who are listening to him describe the surroundings.

Lown describes the lay of the land from the top of a large sand hill in the greenbelt, which covers an area of the Skunk River corridor that’s approximately 8.5 miles long and 3 miles wide in Polk and Jasper Counties.

“This is a cooperative effort,” Lown said.  “A county conservation board could not have done this alone.”  He credited county, state and federal support (including funds from hunting and fishing license fees), and private support from organizations like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (among many others) with helping acquire land for the complex of wetlands and grasslands.

An area of wetlands

This area of wetlands is an Iowa Department of Transportation mitigation area, meaning this wetland serves as a replacement for others that were drained for construction of roads.

The primary purpose of the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt has been to provide a large expanse of valuable habitat for Iowa plants and animals.  The area supports a great variety of wildlife, including Sandhill cranes, blue winged teal, otters, a variety of butterflies, Blanding’s turtles, and what Lown said is perhaps “the best bull snake population in the state.”

That said, the area does support a variety of recreational uses.  Chichaqua is a well-known birding hotspot, listed in the Makoke Trail guidebook of Central Iowa birding hotspots.  Canoe rentals to explore the old Skunk River channel are available for only $7/hour (Lown recommends calling ahead for reservations, the number is 515-249-5925).  The area is also well used for deer hunting, and an off leash dog training area is available year-round, though dogs must be on leash during nesting season on the rest of Chichaqua.  Visitors should also be aware that certain areas of Chichaqua are refuged or off limits to all visitors during certain times of the year.

A Sandhill crane in flight over the easternmost portion of the Chichaqua wetlands complex.

A Sandhill crane in flight over the easternmost portion of the Chichaqua wetlands complex.

Chichaqua is a restored area, mimicking habitat types which were once plentiful all across Iowa, but the land is also under active management to maximize the habitat and other benefits the available land can support.  To keep the grasslands healthy, areas are burned, grazed and cut for hay on a 3-5 year rotation, simulating the kinds of disturbances the area would have experienced prior to modern human development.  Lown explained that different management techniques affect different species on the landscape in different ways, and maintaining the right balance requires careful planning.

A view across the portion of the greenbelt which is closed each summer to provide nesting space for birds.

A view across the portion of the greenbelt which is closed each summer to provide nesting space for birds.

Perhaps the greatest value of Chichaqua is that it exists as a large complex of wetlands that can support a greater diversity of life than smaller, more segmented areas.  Lown said that to fully explore all the different natural features of the greenbelt would take a week or more.  Those who are interested in starting their own exploration in person can get more visitor information from the Polk County Conservation Board.

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