Oak savanna restoration underway

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Clayton County Conservation naturalist Kenny Slocum admires the forb diversity in the goat prairie at the Bloody Run County Park oak savanna. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

 Since 2016, Clayton County Conservation naturalist Kenny Slocum and the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa (CCI) have been working on a restoration project at Bloody Run County Park, located two miles west of Marquette off Highway 18 on 128th St. The 135-acre park provides excellent trout fishing, hiking trails, and primitive camping opportunities. 

"I noticed restoration work had already begun in 2015," noted Slocum. "The previous director, Tim Engelhart, was thinning trees as a stress relief project, leaving the oaks."

Oak savannas were once one of the most common types of vegetation in the Midwest. Currently, intact oak savannas are one of the rarest plant communities on earth  and are in danger of extinction. However, there are many deteriorated oak savannas remaining that can be restored. 

Signs of an ongoing restoration project may include the presence of many sawed off tree stumps. "We use a chain saw to cut down aggressive tree species that are crowding out the oak trees and shading the forest floor," explained Slocum "We leave enough of the stump to prevent them from re-sprouting and treat them with a broad leaf herbicide. We also leave them high enough so they don't become a tripping hazard. Once the stumps deteriorate they are pushed over and become an active part of the forest ecosystem." 

Thriving oak savannas are an important part of a healthy Iowa landscape for a variety of reasons. Acorns produced by oak stands are a significant source of food for wildlife. They also provide habitat for a diverse mix of large mammals such as deer, and small animals including owls, turkeys, bats, squirrels, rabbits, frogs, snakes and turtles. Historically they were home to elk, wolves, mountain lions and buffalo. 

A variety of insects including the monarch butterfly thrive in restored oak savannas due to the diverse mix of prairie flowers that cover the ground underneath the protection of the mighty oak. 

Pollinators are essential to Iowa’s environmental and agricultural systems, benefitting both biodiversity and crop production. "The forb diversity, or flowering non- grassy herbaceous plants that produce seeds and die back at the end of each growing season, is going to be higher in a restored savanna. Oaks are very pollinator friendly," he added.  

When thinning, fire or wind-throw are not present, mesophication occurs, shifting the sun-loving, fire-tolerant savanna to a closed, shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive forest. "I always make the case for anthropogenic landscapes by reminding people biodiversity is our currency and will benefit us the best," Slocum pointed out. "With the use of chainsaws, prescribed burns, and herbicide, we are reinserting ourselves into a natural ecology that is already taking place. Our species list has increased, and we have eight to ten wild flower varieties that have returned that we haven't seen elsewhere. We are accelerating the process, turning it back to the original years ago."

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