Sutherland, Iowa — The area that has become Waterman Prairie has been important for people and wildlife for more than 1,000 years. It’s an area that native tribes called home and where Inkpaduta, Wahpekute Dakota Indian chief of the Spirit Lake massacre and Little Big Horn fame, hid from the military on his way west.
“There’s so much history here,” said Chris LaRue, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It’s easy to see why it was a place where natives had lived and where remnant prairie could be found today.”
The steep slopes, rolling hills and diverse habitat that made it desirable back then still exist today. Covering more than 2,000 noncontiguous high quality acres in four counties, Waterman Prairie Wildlife Area attracts academics, school groups, birders, hunters, historians and those who enjoy a scenic drive on Iowa’s county roads. The area is home to the Whittrock Indian Village State Preserve, remnant tallgrass prairies and a number of wildlife species listed as either threatened or endangered. It’s on the migration route for birds, including falcons and eagles and all species of waterfowl.
Given it location on the migration route as well as its importance among local bird species, Waterman Prairie was designated as a state Bird Conservation Area in 2015. During the dedication ceremony, it was recognized for its importance for nesting and migratory grassland and savanna birds, as well as other animals like the northern prairie skink, least weasel and pollinators including migrating monarchs and resident longhorn bees and bumblebees.
“I’ve been here when thousands upon thousands of migrating monarchs are clinging on oak trees,” LaRue said.
Locally, quality hunting at Waterman Prairie has been a tightly held secret, but word is getting out. Its growing reputation for producing trophy deer, supporting a strong turkey and pheasant population and as popular destination among mushroom hunters has caught the attention of nonresident hunters who call LaRue looking for any nugget of information to help them bag a trophy stag or a limit of roosters.
“This place is being used by locals because access to private land is difficult in this area because everyone wants to keep their spot to hunt their trophy deer. It’s also being used by people coming from Sioux Falls to Sioux City to Fort Dodge for the excellent habitat,” LaRue said. “The economic benefits are being enjoyed by the local businesses.”
Local farmers lend a helping hand
The Iowa DNR often partners with local producers to help manage wildlife areas through haying, thistle control, managing food plots, crop rotation and grazing. At Waterman Prairie, they’ve contracted with two producers, including Brian Tjossem, of Royal, who signed on through the beginning farmer program.
“It gave an opportunity to me when I came back from college to add some acres to the family operation and to add some diversity,” Tjossem said. “I appreciate the opportunity to farm it.”
Although farming the Waterman Prairie area was more challenging than he had expected given its soil variability and steep hills, the scenery more than makes up for it.
“It’s hard to beat the views,” he said comparing it to his relatively flat farmland in Clay County. “But it’s a little nerve wracking coming up to 100 foot drop offs.”
Tjossem’s initial four year contract from 2014 was renewed in January.
“It’s just a great area for wildlife. Just beautiful,” said Tjossem who hunts pheasants on Waterman Prairie. “It’s hard to believe (Waterman Prairie) can be that close to where you live and have that scenery and wildlife.”
The DNR also works with local cattle producers to include grazing in certain areas of Waterman Prairie as a habitat management tool.
Partnerships are key
Multiple partners have contributed to creating and managing the area. The Iowa DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, O’Brien County Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy, Buena Vista County Conservation Board, Cherokee County Conservation Board, O’Brien County Sportsmans Club, Cherokee County Pheasants Forever, Clay County Pheasants Forever, O’Brien County Pheasants Forever, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Iowa chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The Waterman Prairie Bird Conservation Area was made possible by partnerships among O’Brien, Clay, Buena Vista, and Cherokee County Conservation Boards, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa Audubon, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Prairie Lakes Audubon Bird Club, and Iowa DNR.
Waterman Prairie has a wealth of archeological resources, including being attached to Whittrock Indian Village State Preserve. The six acre preserve is one of 11 archeologically important sites in Iowa. The DNR works closely with the state archeologist to preserve the area.
“This area is a treasure not only from a resource point of view, but from a historical point of view and we work closely with state archeologist to protect and preserve this historically rich area,” said LaRue. “It’s easy to see why it was identified as a place where natives and remnant prairie would be found. It’s too steep to plow.”
Research on the Poweshiek skipper and Dakota skipper has been done on this complex.
One parcel of the Waterman complex is part of the National Wildlife Refuge system. While the entire Waterman Prairie area is open to hunting, the refuge portion has a few different rules to operate under.
Waterman Prairie was one of the first locations where otters were released as part of the reintroduction effort. Trumpeter swans have successfully nested on a wetland on the southernmost tract of Waterman Prairie in northern Cherokee County.
Waterman Prairie has a growing following of photographers, especially when prairie flowers are in bloom.
Horseback riding and snowmobiling on the area is not allowed.
Photo courtesy Iowa DNR