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Historic Photos Guiding Decisions at Hooper Wildlife Area
Iowa Ag Connection - 06/13/2018

Prairie plants like mountain mint, rattlesnake master, wild strawberries, milkweeds and more have reappeared at Hooper Wildlife Management Area after sitting dormant for decades under a canopy of cedar trees and black locusts. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been mechanically removing the trees and using fire to open these ridgetops to create disturbed habitat once common to the area and preferred by quail and other wildlife. Photo by the Iowa DNR.

Indianola - The Hooper Wildlife Area is a highly popular place to hunt deer and turkeys, but outside of those seasons, it doesn't receive much attention, save for the lake. But that quietness of the offseason could be changing thanks to a series of old photos that are helping to transform the area.

Wildlife management biologist Todd Gosselink began using photos from the 1930s, 50s, 60s and 70s to help identify old farm fields and existing tree lines to locate previously open areas taken over by cedars, honeysuckle and black locust.

The 1950s to 70s is also about the time, as the story goes, when pheasant and quail hunting at Hooper was at its peak. Looking back, the area was mostly open with small farm fields of various grains, fencerows and brushy areas and it's that mixed open habitat that Gosselink aims to return to the area.

"The area filled in with undesirable species because the annual disturbance was gone. We're doing the annual disturbance now through fire, planting food plots and other management techniques," he said. The project began in the fall of 2014.

"We're going to keep doing management and keep doing quail surveys. We know they're here but in really low numbers. I want this to be a success story. Quail like broken and fragmented habitat and that's what we're hoping to provide," he said.

Hooper is made up of rugged terrain with lots of valleys. The relatively flatter hilltops have been the focus of his search for remnant prairies.

"It's a long process -- 5 to 10 years -- we're watching, waiting to see what comes back," he said. "Jury is still out. We're seeing some good things -- a species here and there, but we're also aggressive fighting invasive species like sericea lespedeza and reeds canary grass."

One reclaimed former farm field in particular responded like Gosselink had hoped. Prairie plants like mountain mint, rattlesnake master, wild strawberries, milkweeds and more, sitting dormant for decades, have reappeared.

"We want to keep the fire on these lobes to keep expanding the open areas," he said. "Keep pushing to get it back to the 50s."

Hooper has secluded and rugged areas tucked in to its 482 acres five miles south of Indianola. A view from above shows several small sediment collection impoundments that would provide opportunities to catch bullfrogs or harvest wood ducks. The largest is a short hike above the upper end of Hooper Lake.

A vacant osprey platform overlooks this quiet pond that offers kayakers, bird watchers or anglers a new experience away from the crowds. Hikers can explore the network of expanding open areas planted in clover, winter wheat, soybeans, grass and re-emerging prairie.

Hooper Wildlife Management Area has limited facilities, primarily focused on the lower end of the lake. There is a parking lot, boat ramp and courtesy dock.

Tackling an improvement project of this size and scale is a little easier when it's supported by partners and the Warren County Chapter of Pheasants Forever has been a strong partner.

Julie Stanley, of Lacona, who recently stepped down after nine years as the Warren County chapter president, said Hooper is an important area for hunting and water activities for families because of its proximity to Indianola.

She said their chapter has helped the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at Hooper by purchasing equipment and hiring contractors to spray for invasive species and plant clover and dove plots. She said it's important to take care of these existing public places.

"Our mission is to make all those areas more accessible to families, be it hunting or fishing," she said.

With their help, Hooper is on the path back to the good old days.

Hooper WMA played an important role in the study of Iowa's bobcat population that eventually led to the re-opening of the secretive feline to being trapped.

In 2003, Gosselink was the forest wildlife species research biologist and in the first year of a six year bobcat study. As part of that study, he had trapped a female bobcat and fitter her with a radio collar to study her travel patterns.

After a few years, the battery on the radio collar was reaching its life expectancy so she was re-captured in the spring on the area. Researchers knew she had litter nearby and were hoping to capture a few kittens to examine. They waited to see if any would come to her but no luck.

The female, called 000 for the telemetry frequency, had some biological data collected, was outfitted with a new collar and released.

She never left that general area.

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