Volunteers muscle behind Kildow
A partnership among Seneca County’s conservation organizations has been quietly happening for more than two years.
About 25 dedicated people have been restoring Kildow Wildlife Area from a mass of invasive species to a vibrant habitat for wildlife.
The state-owned Kildow property north of Howard Collier State Nature Preserve is 179 acres of public hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing on the Sandusky River.
Organizations involved in the effort are led by Christina Kuchle, manager of the Sandusky and Maumee rivers for the state’s Scenic Rivers program through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and Don Hunter, a volunteer with the Sandusky River Coon Hunters, Tiffin-Seneca Izaak Walton League and Seneca County Pheasants Forever.
Those organizations, along with students from Heidelberg Outdoor Enthusiasts, have been working since January 2016 to remove autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose and other invasive species that had formed a thick woody undergrowth and plant warm-season grasses and wildflowers.
Hunter, who is coordinating volunteers, said people who have assisted include Bill Reinhart, Jack Spradlein, Lenzy Marsillett, Fred Smith, Michael Albert, Steve Wright, Mario Livojec, Rob Gerding, Steve Spradlin, Jack Spradlin, Warren Spradlein, Branson Vera, Caleb Frye, Dave Bruns, David Myers, Elliott Nakanishi, Lori Scheele, Tom Scheele, Sam Scheele, Ted Coble, Robert Grine, John Byrum, Tim Riley and himself.
They have logged 712 hours on the project, and Pheasants Forever has spent $3,000 so far on seed and other inputs. That figure does not include the use of volunteers’ personal property, such as chainsaws and fuel.
Kuchle worked with volunteers to create a wildlife habitat management plan and get it approved by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Before the state bought the property in 1971 for $125,000, the land was dairy farm owned by the Kildow family. Included in the purchase was the Heck’s Bridge area that was made into a canoe access on the river.
“The history is that they thought it would be a protected corridor for the Sandusky State Scenic River,” she said. “And that is totally the case.”
The property includes a long riparian corridor as the river flows around it on three sides, and 350 feet along the river has been left undisturbed. On the fourth side is the entrance off TR 28, where a parking lot was added.
Although it’s been public land for 47 years, not much had been done to maintain it until the volunteer group stepped forward, led by Pheasant Forever Habitat Chairman Fred Smith.
“I just ran my big mouth to anybody who would listen in the Department of Natural Resources, Pheasants Forever members, and finally got to the right person – Christina,” Smith said.
Smith said PF had been sponsoring its annual youth pheasant hunt on the property for several years, but it was getting overgrown with briars, saplings, noxious weeds and grasses.
“The youth that we mentor were growing shorter or the briars, saplings, noxious weeds and grasses were growing faster than the youth,” he said. “If we did nothing to the area, there would not be any open areas for the pheasants to fly and our youth would not be able to walk through the area. It was getting so thick, even the dogs were having trouble getting through.”
Kuchle and members of the conservation groups put together a plan to remove invasive species and create diversity by planting fields of native plants to improve wildlife habitat. ODNR entered into a five-year habitat management agreement with Pheasants Forever in September 2015, in which members provide volunteer labor and the state pays much of the expense.
Each winter, volunteers have helped cut and stack brush in the fields, and re-opened areas have been planted with native prairie to provide better foraging and cover for wildlife. They work in winter and early spring to avoid wildlife nesting seasons in spring and hunting season in fall.
“Many of the seed blends have native wildflowers such as wild bergamot, purple coneflower and greyheaded coneflower to help pollinators,” Kuchle said.
“They wanted to tackle the invasive species,” she said. “Several fields were seeing exotic invasive plants like bush honeysuckle and autumn olive take hold. Not only were these conditions providing poor habitat, it also made hunting for children and adults more difficult.”
In addition to opening areas for easier hunting and walking, the goal has been to increase the variety of wildlife, including insects, she said.
“We want insect richness,” she said. In turn, insects attract birds, and caterpillars turn into butterflies and moths.
Smith said progress has been “fantastic.”
“With all our work, we have been able to open up more fields so we can put more youth through the hunt in one day,” he said.
Hunter said he’s also happy with the progress.
“The first two years it was truly astonishing what we were able to accomplish, especially when it gained momentum by numerous groups coming together,” he said.
Hunter said some of the work in the beginning was intensive.
“There was one field with nothing but brush. I mean thick heavy brush,” he said.
Volunteers went through the field with a heavy-duty Brush Hog, knocking down woody material close to 3 inches thick.
“The guys with chainsaws would go in and knock down trees,” he said.
In addition to providing volunteer hours, local and personal funds are paying for fuel to operate machinery and people are using their own chainsaws.
Heidelberg environmental science major David Myers said the student group became involved with Pheasants Forever’s habitat and other volunteer work in 2016.
“Our outdoors club here at Heidelberg University was only a year old then and our mission is to help students get involved in the outdoors,” he said. “One of the ideas we promote is that hunters and fishers are all conservationists. We wanted to stress that, and getting involved with Pheasants got us hands-on experience.”
He said students assist with the organization’s youth shoots and pheasant hunts.
“As someone who has been around the Seneca County area since I was young, all I can say is that the work Pheasants Forever has done to the Kildow property is incredible,” he said. “Kildow used to be unkempt and I remember hunting there as a youth. The entire property used to be filled with briars that were as tall as I was.”
Today, Myers said hunters and people who want to enjoy the scenery can walk through easily.
Myers said assisting with habitat restoration has been educational as well.
“I’ve learned a lot of about what goes into keeping habitat,” he said. “I’ve learned about the plants that harm and help the surrounding plants and animals.”
For example, he said he learned some grasses that grow too thick are not good for small hatchling birds because it interferes with hiding, preventing them from escaping predators.
Myers said anyone interested in learning more about Heidelberg’s Outdoor Enthusiasts Club can visit its Facebook page @Hu
The Kildow area is open to the public, but there are no hiking trails.
Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Hunter at (567) 278-1551 or pheasants