New Pleasant Ridge Grassland Bird Sanctuary protects habitat

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A May 14 ribbon cutting at Phil and Sharon Specht’s farm near Marquette officially marked the dedication of the new Pleasant Ridge Grassland Bird Sanctuary. (Submitted photos)

Phil Specht has long used cattle to mimic the historic grazing patterns of buffalo—a process that’s created perfect habitat for grassland birds.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

A May 14 ribbon cutting at Phil and Sharon Specht’s farm near Marquette officially marked the dedication of the new Pleasant Ridge Grassland Bird Sanctuary. 

 

The birth of the grassland bird sanctuary legally took place last November, when the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) was granted a perpetual conservation easement on the fields of the Specht farm, written to maximize the protection of grassland bird habitat.

 

The 244.48-acre property, located off Pleasant Ridge Road, is primarily grassland with pockets of prairie and wooded draws. The woodland is composed of oak, walnut, shagbark hickory, cherry, hackberry, basswood and maple. The grassland contains patches of remnant prairie, restored prairie and wetlands.

 

Although the project was completed in the past year, Phil Specht said efforts date back much further. 

 

He first partnered with INHF in 2014, in protecting the timber habitat of cerulean warblers, a neotropical migratory bird species whose populations had been plummeting for the last decades. The effort was done in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Bloody Run Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which neighbors Specht’s property.

 

“[Local bird researcher] Jon Stravers did the research and found the cerulean warblers, which led to the creation of a Globally Important Bird Area,” Specht said.

 

Bloody Run WMA likely has one of the largest populations of cerulean warblers. It, and the Specht property, is within Iowa’s only Audubon designated Globally Important Bird Area, which hosts over 100 breeding birds and is within the Iowa DNR designated Effigy Mounds-Yellow River Forest Bird Conservation Area.

 

According to Specht, he later worked to set aside more warbler habitat, which also protects a disappearing stream. The INHF additionally developed a way for the public to gain another walk-in access to the WMA as a birding trail along the grasslands. That tract includes not only grassland birds but nesting sites of the endangered rusty patched bumble bee and diverse areas of wildflowers, he said. 

 

“This final piece of the puzzle represents seven years of collaborative efforts to keep progressing toward our habitat conservation goals,” Specht shared. “Protecting land for the public has been something I’ve been working on for awhile.”

 

Specht credits Brian Frankhauser from INHF for helping to develop the perpetual conservation easement through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) oversees the federal program, which not only sets aside land for conservation, but assures a partner that will continue Specht’s agricultural practices past his lifetime.

 

“It fit what I was doing,” he explained.

 

Specht has long used cattle to mimic the historic grazing patterns of buffalo—a process that’s created perfect habitat for grassland birds like bobolinks, considered a species of greatest conservation need.

 

Specht and researcher Dr. Mary Damm have, for several years, documented bobolink nesting success related to grazing heights on the property.

 

“There are 31 different clauses. Using animal grazing for vegetation management to enhance the value for birds is part of the contract,” Specht said. “There’s no tillage, no row crops, nothing except to enhance biodiversity and sequester more carbon.”

 

“Because of decades of watching the birds interact with cattle, we know you can have it all, including producing heart healthy food. Grassfed beef is one of the single, most-nutritious foods,” he added. “My application was one of the highest ranking in the state because of all the different values added.”

 

Specht said he feels a sense of accomplishment at the creation of the bird sanctuary. 

 

“I kept the faith with the planet,” he reflected. “You can see my farm from space because it’s different. From a bird’s eye view, that has to be what they see—what they are looking for.”

 

Specht is grateful to those who’ve helped with the effort and shared “accumulated knowledge.” Now, he is looking to pass on what he knows and inspire others.

 

“My son grew up knowing the value, and he’ll keep it going,” Specht shared. “But the most immediate thing I’m working on is with neighbor children. One is going to record cattle movement and grass height, and the other is working on the fencing system and how to move cattle.”

 

“It’s going to take a group effort,” he said.

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