On the Farm

An Iowa family farm provides crucial wildlife habitat and public access

 

 

By Larry Stone

 

One family’s love of birds, cattle, and conservation has led to partnerships that protect more than 1,000 acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat for public use in the blufflands of northeast Iowa.

In 1971, Phil Specht and three brothers bought 1,004 acres in the watershed of Bloody Run Creek, a trout stream that joins the Mississippi River.

The land was “as good as it gets” for the wildlife enthusiasts. But as much as they loved the site, they also recognized the need to preserve open spaces and wildlife habitat. In a series of sales over decades, they sold about 700 acres to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That became the core of the 1,100-acre Bloody Run Wildlife Management Area, which protects the premier trout stream and is a popular public hunting area for whitetail deer, turkeys and small game.

The wild property also lies within a National Audubon Society Globally Important Bird Area, as well as the Effigy Mounds-Yellow River Forest Bird Conservation Area, designated by the IDNR.

Although not public land, the remaining Specht farm complements the complex of habitat. Phil Specht, his wife Sharon and their son Jon have partnered with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect 244 acres with a permanent conservation easement. The NRCS Agricultural Land Easement pays the landowner to “protect croplands and grasslands on working farms and ranches by limiting non-agricultural uses.”

The farm qualified partly because of the family’s past management, which encouraged a variety of bird species, native plants and even the endangered rusty patched bumble bee.

Managed grazing also helped provide the “layers” of habitat so critical to biological diversity, starting in the soil with fungi and invertebrates, Phil stressed. “There is as much going on down there as there is up here.”

Until an injury forced his retirement in 2020, Phil maintained a grass-fed Holstein dairy herd. The intensive management that grazing requires – Phil moved his cows among some of 51 grass paddocks every three or four days – led Phil to understand the diversity and complexity of his farm. He observed, for example, that bobolinks thrived with his grazing regime.

He credits his late brother, Dan, who managed a grass-fed beef herd, with first making that connection. “If you’ve got bobolinks, you’ve got a working grassland ecosystem,” Dan observed.

Phil and his family also donated a second conservation easement to INHF, spelling out additional protections, including no permanent structures, no mineral exploitation, no subdividing the property and no animal confinements. Phil reserves the right to hunt, control public access, sustainably manage timber, enhance wetlands and limit use of motorized vehicles.

With a lifetime of observing interactions between livestock and wildlife, Phil stipulated that cattle be part of his conservation easement. Grazing tops the list of permitted uses, while tillage and row-cropping are expressly prohibited.

“Always cattle; never row crops,” is Phil’s mantra. “And the birds will come,” he might add. And wildflowers and insects and amphibians and reptiles and other wildlife that are his “pasture buddies.”

Although his leg injury has curtailed his walking, Phil regularly manages cattle movements from his pickup, camera ready to capture images of birds and wildflowers that he posts on Facebook.

A third part of Phil’s “Grassland Bird Sanctuary” is about 20 acres he sold to the IDNR for a walk-in access to the Bloody Run Wildlife Management Area. “It is a way for the public to view the grassland birds in the new sanctuary . . . without worrying about hot-wire gates or bulls in the cow herd,” he said. From this strip of public land, hikers may see bobolinks, meadowlarks, other grassland birds, prairie wildflowers, monarch butterflies and rusty patched bumble bees on the Spechts’ adjacent private land.

The access corridor leads to a blufftop Specht dubbed Cerulean Point, where ornithologists discovered populations of rare cerulean warblers in mature trees along the Bloody Run Creek valley.

Phil’s sustainable farming practices led to a research collaboration with an entomologist from Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. That 1995 study, of “in-field” refuges for beneficial predator insects to reduce the need for insecticides, began Phil’s use of small areas of fields as refuges of native plants, birds and insects. This turned into other scientific collaborations going beyond simple observations. He has collected data on bobolinks, botany and soil testing with several researchers, especially restoration ecologist Dr. Mary Damm. He’s also worked with scientists from Upper Iowa University and Northeast Iowa Bird Conservancy and plans a project with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Phil is also doing citizen science on bumble bee tracking with the Xerces Society.

Managed grazing also helped provide the “layers” of habitat so critical to biological diversity, starting in the soil with fungi and invertebrates, Phil stressed. “There is as much going on down there as there is up here.”

Above ground, the community is a mix of grazed and ungrazed grasses and forbs, insects, birds attracted by insects, scattered trees in fencerows, mature woodlands in the Bloody Run Creek corridor and small ponds. The farm is a biological cornucopia. Phil, who’s an avid deer hunter, said the walk-in public birding access also will allow energetic hunters to reach the state-owned wildlife area.

While Iowa has relatively little public land, the Specht farm demonstrates that creative cooperation can boost public access.

 

After a 25-year career as outdoor writer/photographer with the Des Moines Register, BHA member Larry Stone has continued as a freelance writer, photographer and speaker on conservation issues. He and his wife, Margaret, live in the Turkey River blufflands of northeast Iowa’s Driftless Area.

About Larry Stone

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