Keep it Wild

By Anita O'Gara on December 6, 2017 in Landowner Stories

Mike and Dan DeCook

Brothers Mike and Dan DeCook. Photo by Erin Van Waus

From their ridge pasture, three generations of the DeCook family enjoy a view reminiscent of the mid-1800s — complete with bison grazing on the prairie.  

Brothers Dan and Mike DeCook have always been passionate about conservation. So when their parents, Mark and Kay DeCook, wanted to purchase a modest farm two decades ago, Dan and Mike could not have been happier. Dan helped his parents find acreage that featured expansive fields dotted with woods and prairie. It was the kind of setting that ultimately lured Mike back from Montana, where he worked with outfitters and cattle ranchers.

Gradually this joint family adventure led them to restore thousands of acres in southern Iowa that provide an “ecological profit” that doesn’t depend on traditional crop production or dividing and selling land.

The DeCooks had three goals: make a living, restore the land and keep it wild.

Mike says his parents “have been super-supportive in switching 400 acres of row crop to all grass, removing manmade structures, moving the ranch to organic cattle production, then to organic grass-fed cattle and now organic grass-fed bison.”


Photo by Ron Huelse

In 2011, the family’s goal to “keep it wild” was cemented when Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) accepted the donation of a permanent conservation easement — the largest ever accepted by INHF acreage-wise. Through it, INHF is responsible for ensuring that nearly 2,000 acres of their land is never developed or subdivided, and that its natural features remain.

“It was a privilege to help this family lock in the restoration they’ve worked so hard to achieve," INHF President Joe McGovern said. "Their way of tying production, restoration and protection together is magical. They have such foresight.”

Since the original easement, the family has protected an additional 712 acres through conservation easements. In total, the DeCooks have protected 2,700 acres in Monroe, Marion and Lucas counties.

Restoration takes time, and plans continue to evolve. Today, the family is working to restore and expand patches of native prairie and oak savanna, restore wetlands, bring back native trees and plants, and reintroduce native Iowa species — like bison — to the land.

Dan says, “We want to work with local government to restore wildlife, too. We released a pair of trumpeter swans on the wetland in 2012.” The farm also boasts abundant wild turkey, coyote, deer and songbirds.

DeCook family and crew

Dan and Mike DeCook, Mike's young sons and the crew on the day the bison first arrived at the ranch. Photo by Ron Huelse

Mike's sons are already inheriting their family's appreciation for conservation, and the DeCooks hope they will one day love and care for this land, too. Even if not, they enjoy knowing that the INHF conservation easement assures that their natural landscape will always remain.