The restoration of Little Swan Lake is a real success


The Little Swan Lake/Christopherson Slough Wetland Complex is a mixture of remnant and restored grassland, a high quality shallow lake, large marsh, restored wetlands, oak savanna and oak woodland covering over 2 100 acres just north of the town of Superior in eastern Dickinson County.

The centerpiece of the area is the 371-acre Little Swan Lake which is experiencing its best water quality in over a generation due to a restoration project combined with a timely drought.

The project was launched in 2015 after the failure of the old spillway. “As the project was launched to repair the weir, we saw an opportunity to reach out to private landowners and our conservation partners to cooperatively explore the renovation of the lake,” said biologist Chris LaRue. Wildlife at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Work began in 2016, but consecutive wet years have limited progress. The water level in the lake was kept low and combined with the consecutive drought years of 2020 and 2021, vegetation eventually established to move the lake to a clear water state.

“We kept the water level down trying to establish the aquatic plants, and then Mother Nature helped with the drought and we did it,” LaRue said. “It was hard to imagine Little Swan Lake with clear water. This is the first time in my career (1996) that you can see the bottom of the lake and significant improvements in water quality . It’s a big problem.

Little Swan Lake opens into a marsh, then into the 90-acre Christopherson Slough, then flows north into Minnesota before entering the West Fork of the Des Moines River. To maintain water quality, it was necessary to protect aquatic plants, so the project included a large rock fish barrier with a system of tubes to prevent common carp from entering the lake. Common carp is a species of fish that uproots aquatic plants and mixes nutrients from lake sediments, resulting in poor water quality.

After the lake was renovated, it was restocked with yellow perch, northern pike and other native species in coordination with district fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins.

The complex had hosted migrating birds and served as an essential stopover during migration, but use had declined significantly due to poor water and habitat quality. After the renovation, waterfowl and non-game birds have returned, and the area is home to three breeding pairs of trumpeter swans. Last year, Little Swan hosted over 50 swans on the migration, which brought a lot of attention to the lake.

LaRue said the internal coordination between the Lake Iowa Restoration Program and local Fish and Wildlife Office staff and the involvement of neighboring landowners was a key reason the project was set up. .

“This restoration would not have been possible without all of the partners,” said LaRue. “This was a team effort made possible by Ducks Unlimited, the Dickinson County Water Quality Commission, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Conservation Service natural resources, private donors, our staff, and funding from the North American Wetland Conservation Act and Lake Iowa. Restoration program.

And the job is not done.

LaRue is planning additional shoreline stabilization improvements in select areas of the state’s coastline in the future with targeted tree removal to enhance oak trees and improve sunlight on slopes for other grasses and critical vegetation.

Other plans include future timber improvement at Christopherson Slough through the removal of buckthorn, which will allow sunlight to reach the ground and promote oak trees and oak tree regeneration.

Unique fauna and plants

Crews from the Iowa DNR Wildlife Diversity Program Multi-Species Inventory and Monitoring Program surveyed the complex, most recently in 2021, recording the various wildlife species that inhabit the area.

He has documented a number of species considered threatened or in need of conservation, including the state-threatened Henslow’s Sparrow and the endangered Henslow’s Harrier. Poweshiek’s Skipperling and Black Terns have been confirmed in the complex, along with Blanchard’s Cricket Frog, Bobolink, Broad-winged Hawk and Bald Eagle.

“It has everything from a wildlife point of view. Waterfowl, deer, pheasants, grassland birds, grassland butterflies and amphibians and reptiles,” LaRue said.

Remnant grassland was found on the dry ridges of the eastern part of the complex and exhibits a unique topography of rolling hills compared to a flatter landscape in the pothole area. Sage, butterfly milkweed, yarrow, grey-headed coneflower, wild bergamot and leadplant are visible.

Some less common plants in the complex include shiny willow, wild rice, and prairie clover, a federally endangered species.

LaRue said he used prescribed fires on three different sections of the grasslands this season to reduce brush and improve habitat. He said they also use targeted and limited grazing management and work with a tenant who does some of the management activities, including setting up food plots and controlling noxious weeds.


  • Little Swan Lake has a boat launch at the north end and a large culvert under County Road N16 connecting the lake to West Bay. Kayakers and small motorboats can cross the culvert when water levels allow – just be sure to tune the motor. Little Swan is currently at peak.
  • The complex supports paddling, a productive fishery popular with duck and pheasant hunters. Steel shot is needed to hunt all species except deer and turkey.
  • After spending a day enjoying Little Swan Lake, stop at the Softtail Saloon on the highway. 4, in Superior, for a burger or Little Swan Lake Winery, south of the lake.

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