Polk Wetlands, State Game Lands 39, Venango County, Pennsylvania

About Polk Wetlands

In a floodplain on this largely forested 10,000-acre State Game Lands in Venango County, northwestern Pennsylvania, wildlife managers are converting 83 formerly farmed acres to woodcock habitat. At the core of the project is a 25-acre site where a field’s drainage pattern has been radically changed and thousands of tree and shrub seedlings have been planted.

The Polk wetlands is a stretch of flat land in the floodplain of Sandy Creek. During the twentieth century the area was cleared, dried out with a system of buried drainage tiles, and farmed as part of a complex of fields around a state hospital. In 1994 the land was transferred to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Once a monoculture of corn and soybeans, this lowland now includes ponds, wetlands, and patches of shrubs, which, combined with bottomland forest, provide breeding and resting habitats for a wide range of resident and migratory birds, including woodcock, snipe, herons, waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds.

In 2005 the site was designated as one of 28 potential woodcock habitat management sites in the Pennsylvania Woodcock Habitat Initiative on State Lands (WHISL) program, organized by the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) and Mackin Engineering Company, Pittsburgh, PA.

Polk Wetlands was chosen as the pilot site for a habitat demonstration project. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) would create a scrub-shrub wetlands to help replace similar habitat that might be lost to road construction in the future. Mackin Engineering secured funding for the project on behalf of RGS, helped plan and design the habitat improvements, and coordinated activities over several years with key state and federal agencies, particularly the Pennsylvania Game Commission and PennDOT.

Improving the Land for Woodcock

In 2007 managers used divining rods and aerial photographs to locate 12 old agricultural tile lines that were draining water from the land. The tile lines were unearthed, then broken or plugged with concrete. Excavators built shallow earthen berms to slow surface drainage and help keep the land damp, and to back up shallow pools that now provide habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife.

Photo of early-stage woodcock habitat

Workers used excavators to build a series of shallow earthen berms to slow surface drainage of the land and keep soils damp. This area will grow up in woodcock-friendly shrubs.

In October 2008, volunteers from the Allegheny Woodlands chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society joined employees of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, PennDOT, Mackin Engineering, and the general public in planting 30,000 seedlings of silky and red osier dogwood, hawthorn, crabapple, alder, and aspen on 25 acres of the former fields.

Due east of those 25 acres lies a 6-acre field that was sharecropped until 2007; the Game Commission has let this field begin to revert to shrubs and brush. West of the 25-acre core area, another 31 acres are being turned into early successional habitat. There, technicians used herbicide to kill invasive shrubs (autumn olive and multiflora rose), and planted 5,100 native shrub seedlings in April 2009 to augment the dogwood, hawthorn, and crabapples that also had started to reclaim the field. Farther west is a 21-acre field that was formerly sharecropped. In 2010, managers will treat the invasive shrubs, and then replant using native shrubs.

Other Factors


Many native shrubs have been planted on the demonstration area.

Combined, the four fields will provide 83 acres of new habitat for timberdoodles and other wild creatures that need brushy, shrubby land.

Over the next five years, a constellation of woodcock habitat sites are scheduled to be improved and created in the Sandy Creek drainage.

To the west and upstream from the Polk Wetlands, on State Game Lands 130 in Mercer County, 10 acres of pole-stage aspen will be cleared to create woodcock feeding and brood-rearing habitat. Managers plan to mow shrubby areas along the creek to maintain them in a brushy state. In former strip-mined areas on SGL 130, other aspen stands will be identified and cut so that they resprout vigorously and become young-forest habitat.

Farther upstream is Maurice K. Goddard State Park, which surrounds 1,860-acre Lake Wilhelm, backed up by a dam on Sandy Creek. At the park, several old fields totaling around 50 acres have long been used by woodcock. Invasive shrubs, including autumn olive and multiflora rose, are beginning to take over those areas. Managers propose to work with WMI biologists and Pennsylvania Game Commission staff to suppress the invasives and return the land to a more useful state for woodcock, grouse, and other young-forest wildlife.

At the north end of Goddard Park lies State Game Lands 270. Here, six fields totaling about 73 acres will gradually become woodcock cover as they are removed from agriculture. One 22-acre field was planted with 6,800 native shrub seedlings in May 2009. (Many other parts of this game land are currently good woodcock habitat.)

Funding and Partners

For the Polk Wetlands project on State Game Lands 39, partners and cooperators include the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Mackin Engineering, Ruffed Grouse Society, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and Wildlife Management Institute.

How to Visit

Polk Wetlands is on SR 3024, the Polk Cutoff Road, southwest of Franklin. Proceed west a little over a mile to the bottom of a hill, where the woods open up into fields and floodplain valley. Downhill from a white barn on the south side of the road lies the 25-acre WHISL site. For more information or to arrange a tour, contact Pennsylvania Game Commission land manager Jim Donatelli at jdonatelli@state.pa.us or through the Game Commission’s Northwest Division Regional Office, telephone 814-432-3187.