- ES Home
- What We Do
- Candidate Conservation
- Listing and Critical Habitat
- For Landowners
- About Us
- FWS Regions
- Laws & Policies
- For Kids
Iowa's Disappearing Prairie Species
by Kristen Lundh
Photo Credit: Kristen Lundh / USFWS
Iowa greeted the earliest European settlers with a vast 30-million-acre sea of tallgrass prairie interspersed with woodlands and wetlands. Today, less than one percent of this original prairie remains. Conversion to farms and development reduced the once extensive prairie to a collection of isolated patches of varying size and quality. Most prairie remnants are small and degraded by haying, livestock grazing, dumping, fire suppression, or succession of woody species.
Prairies – one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world – are home to hundreds of plants, animals, and insects. With the loss of this native prairie habitat across much of the Hawkeye State, a diversity of species have become exceptionally rare, and a few have even been pushed to extinction. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) currently protects 14 of Iowa's imperiled plant and animal species.
Four prairie plants are among the state's rarest flora—the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara), prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptosatchya), and Mead's milkweed (Asclepias meadii). Eastern and western prairie fringed orchids thrive in wet prairies, sedge meadows, fens, and even bogs, while Mead's milkweed and prairie bush clover prefer drier prairie areas. Although prairie once covered Iowa from border to border, each of these plants can now only be found in a handful of prairie remnants.
Photo Credit: Aleshia Kenney / USFWS
The Topeka shiner (Notropis topeka), a small prairie fish, gained federal protection in 1998. The shiner once flourished in natural pools and off-channel ponds of Iowa's prairie streams. Although once common, the Topeka shiner has declined by 70 percent across its range because of habitat destruction and sedimentation as the prairie streams were channelized and impounded.
The Poweshiek skipperling (Oarisma Poweshiek) is another species that was once found across Iowa, but because of loss of prairie, it has been proposed for ESA protection. This small prairie butterfly thrives in a variety of prairie settings, from high, dry areas of remnant prairie, to wet prairie habitats, and even prairie fens. Adult skipperlings feed on the nectar of prairie flowers including the common purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), while the larvae feed on fine-stemmed grasses including little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Although about 14 percent of the known Poweshiek skippering population was once found in Iowa, the species may have already disappeared from the state.
While all of these species are quite different, the reasons they are listed as endangered or threatened, and the threats they face, are largely the same. The loss of 99.9 percent of Iowa's prairie has left many of the state's native plant and animal species with few places to live. Small, local populations of plants and animals that depend on prairie remnants, like the plants and butterflies, are especially vulnerable—a single, catastrophic event like a drought can quickly undo years of progress and provide significant setback to the recovery.
Prairies are perhaps the most endangered ecosystem in the country. Conserving federally listed prairie plants and animals, like the western prairie fringed orchid and the Topeka shiner, addresses not only the species' needs but the ecosystem's needs as well, thus conserving myriad other prairie-dependent species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its many partners are working to conserve tallgrass prairie through preservation, management, and research.
Kristen Lundh, an endangered species biologist in the Service's Rock Island Ecological Services Field Office in Illinois, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 309-757-5800, ext. 215.
What We Do
- Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)
- Safe Harbor Agreements
- Candidate Conservation Agreements
- Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances
- Recovery Credits and Tax Deductions
- Conservation Banking
- Conservation Plans Database
- Information, Planning and Conservation System (IPaC)
- Recovery Online Activity Reporting System (ROAR)
- News Stories
- Featured Species
- Recovery Success Stories
- Endangered Species Bulletin
- Partnership Stories