What We Do

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a series of lands and waters owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the refuge system. It drives everything we do from the purpose a refuge is established, to the recreational activities offered there, to the resource management tools we use. Selecting the right tools helps us ensure the survival of local plants and animals and helps fulfill the purpose of the refuge.

At Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, staff and volunteers use a variety of tools to restore, rebuild and manage the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna ecosystems. The tools and management activities used include harvesting and planting native prairie seeds, mowing, removing trees and non-native invasive plants, applying prescribed fire and conducting biological monitoring projects. In addition, bison and elk were reintroduced because their behaviors naturally help manage the tallgrass prairie, as well as, add to the biological diversity of the area.

Refuge staff also reconstruct or rebuild prairie by planting farm fields with native prairie plants where tallgrass prairie once grew. Additionally, work is done to restore tallgrass prairie and oak savanna remnants, fragments of the original ecosystems that survived European-American settlement.

Management and Conservation

Refuges use a wide range of land management tools based on the best science available. The management tools used are aimed at ensuring a balanced conservation approach where both wildlife and people will benefit. At this field station our conservation toolbox includes:

Restoring Prairie Remnants

The refuge includes about 90 acres of prairie remnants, patches of native plant populations that survived since before the area was settled and plowed. 

Staff and volunteers 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. The work includes removing trees and shrubs, controlling invasive plants using herbicides, reintroducing fire to the areas and, in certain cases, reintroducing some prairie plant species.

Planting Native Plants

The reconstruction or rebuilding of prairie begins with seeds. However, getting large quantities of prairie plant seeds that are native to the area can be a difficult task. The refuge only uses local ecotype seed which is seed taken from plants found within the 38 surrounding counties. These seeds are adapted to the same types of soil and climate conditions found at the refuge. Staff and volunteers work hard to collect seeds from dozens of refuge plant species in summer and fall. Some seeds are purchased from prairie nurseries, others are harvested on the refuge with machinery or by hand.

During the winter months, volunteers and staff clean the hand-collected seeds by removing stems, leaves and any other non-seed material. Most of the cleaned seeds will be added to a seed mix and then it will be spread onto prepared farm fields. The seed mix is also added to previously planted prairie to increase the native plant diversity. More than 200 species of prairie have been planted on former farm fields.

Some prairie plants are hard to grow from seed, are difficult to find or are expensive to buy. In late winter, these seeds are planted in our greenhouse which allows them to grow without competition with other plants. Once the seedlings are large enough, volunteers, students and staff transplant them into larger containers. This allows the seedlings to grow and develop strong root systems. This practice provides them with a better chance of survival once they are planted out in the prairie. They are planted in areas where these plant species are uncommon or absent.

Prescribed Fire

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 non-fire resistant trees. Fire stimulates the growth of prairie plants by removing last year’s dead plant material, allowing sunlight to reach the new shoots emerging from the ground. Fire also promotes the sprouting of many prairie plant seeds by removing the outer seed coat. Frequent fires prevent trees from becoming established since they are not adapted to survive fire like prairie plants. Before the arrival of European settlers in the Midwest, Native Americans intentionally set fires in late summer and fall to create quality habitat for animals such as bison, elk and deer. It also reduced the danger of wildfire, made travel easier and increased visibility. Today, prescribed fire is used on the prairie for many of the same reasons. Refuge staff primarily apply prescribed fire in the late fall and early spring when conditions are best for burning. Sections of the refuge are rotationally burned, every one to three years.

Invasive Species Management

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. Refuge staff manage invasive plants using different tools, depending on the species. Fire and grazing are commonly used tools. However, some invasive plants have a two year life cycle and mowing the plants before their flowers produce seeds is the best way to control them. Others are removed with hand tools such as pruners, while trees and shrubs are cut with saws or loppers, followed by herbicide treatment. Herbicides are used when no other method of control will work.


Grazing animals, such as bison and elk, are nature’s mowers. They help us manage the prairie inside the 800 acre fenced enclosure. Grazing provides some of the same benefits as applying prescribed fire. It increases the amount of sunlight and water that can reach the ground, stimulating plant growth. Bison prefer to eat grasses, which allows wildflowers 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 changing to 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 create bare areas on the prairie by rubbing and wallowing, building habitat for certain types of plants and animals. Many other animals, from white-tailed deer to mice and grasshoppers, also graze on prairie plants.

Our Services

American the Beautiful Passes

Visitors can purchase passes covering the entrance and standard amenity fees charged for using other federal lands - including other national wildlife refuges that do charge fees - in our Visitor Center. These include:

  • Senior Lifetime ($80)
  • Senior Annual ($20)
  • Regular Annual ($80)
  • Military Annual (Free with documentation)
  • Access (Free with documentation of permanent disability)
  • Fourth Grade Passes (Free with completion of 4th grade activity)

Note: passes are not available for purchase when the visitor center is closed. To purchase a pass online, please visit the USGS store website.

Passes are available for purchase in the Visitor Center during open hours. They are not available on Federal holidays. Payment is accepted by cash or check only. Credit or debit cards cannot be used for payment.

Law Enforcement

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers have a wide variety of duties and responsibilities. Officers help visitors understand and obey wildlife protection laws. They work closely with state and local government offices to enforce federal, state and refuge hunting regulations that protect migratory birds and other game species from illegal take and preserve legitimate hunting opportunities.

To ensure your safety and to protect wildlife and habitat, please be aware of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge rules and regulations. Please consult the refuge manager at 515-994-3400 if you have specific rules and regulations questions

To report injured wildlife, wildlife crimes or violations at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, contact a federal wildlife law enforcement officer at 515-422-4020 or by calling the visitor center at 515-994-3400.