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Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 10:34 a.m. CDT

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Fire as management

The work to improve Iowa’s prairies takes center stage each spring when agencies and private landowners use fire to manage their grasslands and improve their value for wildlife.

Burning as a management tool helps to fend off encroaching woody species and nonnative plants in an effort to promote diverse native grasses and wildflowers.

Burning removes the accumulated thatch and reinvigorates native plants by simulating what occurred naturally for centuries.

But unlike Mother Nature, these burns must be well planned to maximize the benefits to the land and wildlife while minimizing the impact to neighbors.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources burns about 15 to 20,000 acres each year and each burn requires a plan, which includes fire breaks, notifying neighbors and contacting the local fire and rescue dispatch.

Smoke management is a big issue and wildlife biologists use spot weather forecasts to burn when the conditions are predicted to give the smoke a lift into the atmosphere or carry it away from nearby homes, roads or communities.

There are specific management goals for the area to be burned that is part of the long term management plan, said Scott Peterson, wildlife supervisor for central Iowa.

“Once the conditions allow, we will start carrying out our burn plans across the state,” Peterson said. “This is an effort to diversify the landscape as much as possible to create a stable environment. Prairie was a dominant landscape and by using fire, hopefully we can bring some of those grassland species back, like Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissels, bobolinks and meadowlarks.”

Removing the thatch allows ground nesting species including pheasants and quail to move through the area easier. Burned areas sprout new growth within a week and within a few weeks there will be little evidence that the area was burned.

“Our grassland wildlife are among our most quickly disappearing species,” said Bill Ohde, wildlife supervisor for the DNR in southeast Iowa. “Prairie systems are extremely complex and as our knowledge base continues to grow, we will adapt our management of those areas.

“The timing of the burn will determine how the prairie responds to it. You may see us burning in the summer or in the fall to encourage wildflowers, which are important to attract insects, a vital food for young birds,” Ohde said.

One of the complaints they often hear, Ohde said, is that burning destroys all the ground nests.  While some nests are lost with the spring burns, the loss is only in the short term, and most birds will re-nest.

“We try to impact the nests as little as possible, but for the long term health and productivity of the grasslands and wildlife, fire is a tremendous management tool,” Ohde said.

Turkey hunting outlook

Spring turkey hunters in Iowa should notice more birds. Dry conditions in 2012 meant a better hatch and first year of growth for poults. As about 45,000 hunters head to the woods through April and May, that can’t hurt their chances of taking a gobbler.

“Across the state, we had about a 25 percent increase. North central and northeast Iowa had great increases in reproduction,” notes DNR forest research biologist Todd Gosselink. East central and southwest Iowa showed healthy increases, too…though with fewer overall sightings.

Poults with hens, sighted by DNR field staff and other cooperators during the late summer, together with fall bowhunter observations, and eventual harvest of year old ‘jakes’ the next spring help formulate Iowa’s hatch and brood success index.

Iowa’s turkey season opens with the April 6-14 youth season. The regular seasons fall in line after that; April 15-18, April 19-23, April 24-30 and May 1-19 for combination shotgun/bow tag holders. A resident archery only tag is good throughout the four regular seasons.

Spring turkey hunting coincides with pre-breeding and then breeding activity of the big gamebirds. With snow on the ground throughout much of Iowa this week, Gosselink is getting inquiries about the effect of a ‘late spring.’

Checking weather patterns for past years, though, he calls 2013--so far--a normal spring.

“They’ll strut this time of year. What we hope for is that when seasons begin, with an increase in temperatures, it will really get the turkey activity going, full steam.”The expansion again this year of the youth season might seem like an early start. However, the April 15 opening day of the first regular season is on track with season openers in past years.

That nine-day youth season provides extra one-one-one mentoring with hunters under 16. In earlier years, bad weather over the shorter four day season could erase a young hunter’s chances to head to the woods…especially if he or she could only go out on the weekend. Youth hunter numbers set a record in 2012, with 3,450 licenses sold. And with the longer season, harvest success was up a whopping 81 percent.

Across all spring seasons in 2012, hunters holding 45,159 licenses in Iowa harvested 10,457 bearded turkeys. An Iowa resident may obtain up to two spring turkey tags, so long as one is for use in Season 4.

Ahead of your first forays into the turkey woods during the season, turkey experts urge you to do some subtle scouting.

“Go out in the evening. Often, turkeys will gobble before they fly up to roost,” suggests Gosselink…keeping a comfortable distance, with little vegetative cover. With snow cover, though, turkeys may still be cluster ed as they feed during the day.

What calls to use?

“I will have a couple of mouth calls, a box call and an owl hooter,” suggests wildlife technician Jim Coffey. “Be confident with what you use; practice to build that confidence…even if you don’t use it each time out.”

And while the crack of dawn gobble is exciting, it is not the only time to pursue Iowa’s biggest game bird.

“There’s nothing wrong with heading out at 10 or 11 a.m. That turkey lives where you hunt. He will still be there!” reminds Coffey….again noting that early season vegetation might have you sitting still, to minimize movement and being detected by the eagle-eyed game bird.

New lake maps

For the next six summers, fisheries staff from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources will be mapping Iowa lakes using some sophisticated equipment that will provide more accurate maps for anglers and information for the lake restoration program.

Visitors to Iowa lakes may see the operation in progress. A DNR fisheries boat loaded with two lap top computers, a flat screen, a suitcase that contains the brains of the program, and equipment hanging off the side running about five miles per hour crisscrossing the lake.

The software will record lake depth plus information on what type of material is on the lake bed (sand, gravel, muck) and, if aquatic vegetation is present, the height and density of that vegetation.  It will also collect information for lake restoration projects.

Lewis Bruce, fisheries technician working on the project, said they plan to map 115 of the significantly publicly owned lakes in Iowa.

He said they can set up the software so when the information is collected it will generate a file where they can add existing habitat and background information to create new lake contour maps.

The DNR recently placed new maps for Arrowhead Lake, Badger Lake, Avenue of the Saints Pond, Binder Lake, and Center Lake online at www.iowadnr.gov/Fishing/WheretoFish/LakesPondsReservoirs.aspx.  In 2013, they will begin collecting information on Clear Lake, Carter Lake, Brushy Creek Lake, Mariposa Lake, Blue Lake, Springbrook Lake and Volga Lake, if conditions allow.

Bruce said they will avoid mapping on windy days because the waves could cause accuracy issues.  He said water level in many lakes is also a concern.

“Low water levels could play a role in what we can and can’t map,” he said. “Mapping Clear Lake is important but in its current condition with extremely low water level and much of the lakebed now dry land, we may need to wait until the water level improves to have an accurate product.”

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