Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

An Island of Prairie Habitat in an Ocean of Agriculture: Restoring Iowa Prairie for 25 Years

April 15, 2016

Short-eared owl. Photo by Karen Viste-Sparkman/USFWS.
Short-eared owl. Photo by Karen Viste-Sparkman/USFWS.

It was 25 years ago that Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa acquired its first land and began restoration. At a young age, this refuge is already an incredible success story.

Neal Smith was authorized in 1990 to protect, reconstruct and manage the diverse native ecosystems of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and sedge meadow. This was the first large-scale tallgrass prairie ecological restoration in the National Wildlife System, and it only uses species with local genetics adapted to this climate.

Our goal for this 5,600-acre refuge has been to restore as much of the historic landscape as is feasible, from plants to hydrology to wildlife. Most of Iowa is intensively farmed, so the refuge provides a rare opportunity for people to see tallgrass prairie and experience nature.

By reconstructing tallgrass prairie on former agricultural land, our biologists and land managers created an island of habitat in an ocean of row crops. Thanks to restoration efforts, grassland birds, including bobolinks and dickcissels, have returned to central Iowa. The refuge is an anchor point for monarch butterflies - offering prime breeding and migration stopover habitat, and an anchor point for outreach and education.

More than 600,000 people in the greater Des Moines area are within an hour drive of the refuge, which makes Neal Smith the perfect place to get the word out about conservation efforts. Not only is the refuge a hub of education for local schools, it is also a huge propagation center for the monarch-friendly plants that we are planting with citizens in Des Moines as part of the People for Pollinators Program.

More than 100,000 visitors take the auto tour route each year to view and photograph bison and elk, and numerous grassland birds. If you’re lucky, you may even spot our most famous bison! The Prairie Learning and Visitor Center welcomes thousands of students and visitors who come to participate in environmental education programs. In 2014, we saw visitors from all 50 states, two territories, and 42 countries. Most refuge visitors come to observe and take photos of wildlife.

Common bird sightings include dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks, Henslow's and grasshopper sparrows and sedge wrens. Formica montana ant mounds are obvious after prescribed burn work and stimulate a lot of questions from visitors. During a wet spring, you may even see shorebirds visiting the refuge!

Badger and bobcat have been seen and photographed on the refuge, but due to their secretive nature are rare sightings. Considering how much of the surrounding landscape is farmed, this is noteworthy.

Historical side note

The refuge was initially named Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge. To honor Congressman Neal Smith, who was instrumental in getting the refuge established, the refuge was renamed in 1998. One of the initial land purchases was from Iowa Power, who had planned on building a nuclear plant on site. Imagine how very different this land would be!

Learn more about Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and plan your visit:

Bison with calf. Photo by Doreen Van Ryswyk/USFWS.
Bison with calf. Photo by Doreen Van Ryswyk/USFWS.

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

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