Resource Management

Prescribed burn 2

Maintaining the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna requires intensive management. We conduct restoration on prairie or savanna remnants where there are still native plants or trees present. Prairie reconstruction is exactly what it implies – rebuilding prairie. Former farm fields where native prairie and savanna no longer exist are planted with native seed. Below are some common management activities used to restore and reconstruct prairie and savanna.

  • Restoring Prairie Remnants

    Removing trees and shrubs

    The refuge includes about 90 acres of prairie remnants. These patches of native plant populations have survived since before the area was settled and plowed. The plants that have survived in these remnants are specially adapted to the soil types and climate conditions at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), so their genetic material is valuable and important to preserve. We collect seeds from these remnants so the locally adapted genes can be passed on and spread throughout the refuge. Before the refuge was established, these remnants experienced fire suppression, intensive grazing, and in some cases plowing or other soil disturbance. Restoring these remnants is a long-term process. We are working hard to remove trees and shrubs, control invasive plants using herbicides, and reintroduce fire to the areas. In some cases, other prairie plants are reintroduced.

  • Planting Native Plants

    Seedlings in the greenhouse

    The reconstruction process begins with seeds, but getting large quantities of prairie plant seeds that are native to our area can be a difficult task. We use only local ecotype seed, or those from an area that includes 38 counties in southern Iowa. These seeds are adapted to the same types of soil and climate conditions that are found on the refuge. Staff and volunteers work hard to collect seeds from dozens of species in summer and fall from plants on the refuge. We also purchase some seeds from prairie nurseries. We harvest seed on the refuge with machinery, and buy some seed that has been harvested from remnant prairies.

    During the winter months, volunteers help staff with cleaning the hand-collected seeds – removing stems, leaves, and any other non-seed material. Once cleaned, most of these seeds will be added to a seed mix, and spread on the ground in a field that has recently been farmed. Some will be added to areas that have already been planted with prairie plants, but don’t have a high diversity. More than 200 species of prairie plants have been seeded into former farm fields on the refuge.

    Some kinds of plants are harder to grow from seed, or the seed is difficult to find or expensive to buy. In late winter, these seeds are planted in our greenhouse, where they sprout without competition. Once they are large enough, volunteers, students and staff transplant them into larger conetainers where they can grow into seedlings. This gives them a chance to grow strong roots before they are planted outside later, so they have a better chance at survival. They are transplanted into areas where those species are not present.

  • Prescribed Fire

    Rx Fire thumbnail

    Fire is one of the most important forces at work on the prairie — without fire, the grasses and other fire-adapted prairie plants would be shaded out by trees. Fire stimulates the growth of prairie plants by removing last year’s dead plant material, allowing sunlight to reach the black earth that follows the burn and the new shoots emerging from the ground. Fire promotes the sprouting of many prairie plant seeds by removing the outer seed coat. Frequent fires prevent trees from becoming established. Before the arrival of European settlers in the midwest, Native Americans intentionally set fires in late summer and fall to provide the best habitat for animals such as bison, elk, and deer, to reduce the danger of wildfire, to ease travel, and to increase visibility and safety. Today, refuge staff use prescribed fire on the prairie for similar reasons.

    We burn at Neal Smith NWR primarily in the late fall and early spring when conditions are best – dry and windy enough to carry fire, but not too dry or windy to create a wildfire hazard. Most areas are burned every 1 to 3 years, if possible.

  • Invasive Species Management

    Cutting Queen Anne's lace

    Non-native plants or animals are ones that have been brought to this area, either on purpose or by accident, since European settlement. Invasive plants are non-natives that cause environmental harm because they do not fit into the native communities or have natural enemies here. Without some sort of management, invasive plants could out-compete native prairie and savanna plants. This can also harm the wild animals that need the native prairie and savanna for food and shelter. We manage invasive plants using different tools, depending on the species. Fire and grazing are common tools. For some invasive plants, we can control them by mowing before the flowers produce seeds. Others we can pull by hand or use pruners to clip individual plants close to the ground. We cut some trees and shrubs using saws or loppers, followed by an herbicide treatment. We use herbicides for other plants that we can’t control any other way.

  • Grazing

    Grazing bison

    Grazing animals, such as bison and elk, are nature’s mowers. They help us manage the prairie inside the 800-acre fenced enclosure. Grazing has some of the same benefits to prairie as burning does, stimulating growth of prairie plants by increasing the amount of sunlight and water that reach the ground. Bison prefer to eat grasses, which gives wildflowers a chance to spread and increase their diversity. At certain times of the year, elk prefer to browse on trees and shrubs, which helps prevent the prairies and savannas from becoming forests. Grazing animals also spread native plant seeds to new areas both through their digestive systems and by collecting and shedding seeds in their fur. Bison affect the prairie in other ways, creating bare areas by rubbing and wallowing. This creates areas favored by certain types of plants and animals. Many other animals, from white-tailed deer to mice and grasshoppers, also graze prairie plants.