Guest Editorial

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Core Habitat

." It's a notion that's been around for a while. But, like the wheel, it needs reinventing every now and then.

In the world of both game and non-game wildlife, there's no greater impact on population numbers than good quality core habitat! It means the difference between having shelter from a bitter Iowa blizzard and death by freezing or suffocation. Core habitat is the difference between having huntable populations of pheasants and none at all. But it's importance is often overlooked by everyone!

Now core habitat can vary a lot from situation to situation. It can be something as simple as several rows of corn across a field or something as elaborate as a windbreak of Scotch pine trees with walnut trees, plum thickets, and spruce trees thrown in for good measure. The more elaborate core habitat is, the more diverse the wildlife population living in it is.

A chunk of core habitat is "home" for the animals living in it. One wouldn't expect squirrels living in several rows of corn, but would expect to see pheasants, partridge, deer and jack rabbits. Likewise, in an old farm windbreak, there would be winter song birds, in addition to the other critters we would expect to see there.

Every time we drive by an old farm grove, we're driving by some core habitat for wildlife. The fields surrounding this habitat can be as bare as a table top for quite a ways, but the animals living in the core habitat will venture out into this wasteland for food. When blizzards come, they retreat back into this core habitat.

But chunks of core habitat can be large, too. Like a patch of woods that supports a flock of turkeys. A thick growth of red cedar trees act as a core habitat to a flock of turkeys around here. I wouldn't even guess how many young turkey poults have been produced through the years because that core habitat has been left intact!

And core habitat can be linear, like the growth along old railroad tracks. In fact, that's how I got into this subject. There's a good chunk of core habitat along the old railroad tracks transecting northern Buena Vista County that surely needs preservation! Along those tracks near Pickerel Lake, there's trees and plum thickets over 20-years old interspersed with cattails in wet spots and native prairie plants on the upland slopes.

Because this core habitat is long and narrow, it impacts the wildlife populations along it. In fact, if it weren't there, pheasant, partridge and deer populations would plummet in that part of the county. Unfortunately, agencies responsible for implementing steps to save this chunk of core habitat are a bit slow to act.

If we revisit the situation of these abandoned railroad right-of-ways, most of the land has been reverted back to private ownership. Some was purchased outright by the railroads, some was leased for 99 years and when the railbed was abandoned, it just reverted back to the original farm outline.

In either case, the landowner has a problem with these railbeds. It can't be farmed; there's a ditch on either side of the railbed. So, to make that land profitable, a bulldozer has to be hired to level it out. Low spots have to be tiled, bridges and culverts have to be removed or replaced with tile, which is expensive, too.

The end result of this reclamation is that valuable core habitat for wildlife is removed and landowners end up with some pretty pricey cropland - perhaps the most pricey land on the farm, but, certainly not the most productive.

The alternative of working with the Iowa DNR to establish permanent wildlife management areas out of these old abandoned railroad beds seems to me a much better alternative. If this can be worked out properly, the landowner, instead of having to pay to remove the old rail bed, might get a tax break for leaving it like it is! Plus, he or she would be able to reap the benefits of having a chunk of wildlife core habitat bordering his or her farm.

To me, this alternative seems much more attractive than trying to establish a hiking/biking trail out of every abandoned railroad right-of-way! In fact, if the Iowa DNR and the legislature and the county conservation boards get behind this concept of preserving core habitat as soon as the railbeds are abandoned, we might have strips of habitat all across the state!

I might hasten to add that the case of the old railbed along the Little Sioux River is a closed one, for me, at least! Been there, done that and it died a natural death - for lack of support! But there's lots of other railbeds still in operation and either in the process of being abandoned or scheduled for abandonment. It's these I'm concerned about.

Plus, these old railbeds run across cropland where there isn't much core habitat available! That increases the value of the areas for both game and none-game species. I'm reminded of what happened to an old railbed in north central Iowa that I had hunted for 20-odd years, then reverted back to private ownership. I could almost always count on some plum thickets along that railbed to produce a few late-season roosters during the worst of Iowa blizzards! When the railbed was gone, so were the pheasants!

We have a chance to prevent that from happening again and again all over Iowa.