Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge is home to ancient snails
The geography of the Endangered Species Act 

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The lands and waters of the National Wildlife Refuge System offer a haven for species that are facing extinction. After more than 50 years of the supporting the Endangered Species Act, we at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are shining a light on some of the special places that help protect threatened and endangered species. 

Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1989 to protect the endangered Iowa Pleistocene snail and the threatened northern wild monkshood. Today, the refuge protects 1,238 acres of its namesake, the Driftless Area. This karst topography of northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois escaped glaciation, leaving unique relicts. Take a moment to learn more about this rugged refuge and how we’re protecting the geography of endangered species that depend on these protected lands and waters. 

What is a karst landscape? 

Karst is a type of landscape that is defined by caves, springs, sinking streams and other features that are formed when bedrock is dissolved. Above ground, these landscapes are known for ridges, fissures and sinkholes. Across the world, these formations are created as water dissolves soluble rock types like limestone, marble and gypsum, as it seeps into the porous rock. In the case of the Driftless Area, limestone makes up the scaffolding of this subterrain world. 

Cold microclimates are found on algific talus slopes within the protected acreage of the refuge, where warm air enters the sinkholes, cools over groundwater and seeps out of cracks in the rocks. Because of the cool temperatures and moist conditions, you can find plants that seem out of place for this latitude. The refuge slopes are home to yews, balsam fir, showy lady’s slipper and golden saxifrage, which typically grow in a colder, more northern climate. The Driftless Area’s cold microclimates allow the rare plants and animals to survive. 

Why should you care about snails and fragile plants? 

What difference will protecting cold microclimates for snails and plants make? The simple answer is that Earth's whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No one knows how the extinction of organisms will affect the other members of its ecosystem, but the removal of a single species can set off a chain reaction affecting many others. The ecological value of a species is just one consideration. When we lose a species to extinction, we may be losing solutions to our most pressing problems. If these organisms are destroyed before their unique chemistries are known, their secrets would die with them. 

The Iowa Pleistocene snail is adapted to the cold climate of algific talus slopes. They can grow as big as about 0.3 inches, which is roughly the diameter of a standard pencil. These snails live in the leaf litter of the refuge’s cool, moist hillsides and depend on the stable temperatures that maintain a range from below 50 F in the summer months to above 14 F in winter. 

Listed in 1978 as federally endangered, the Iowa Pleistocene snail faced several threats including logging, grazing and mining. Although these threats have mostly abated because of site protection, this glacial relict continues to be influenced by sinkhole filling, contamination and human foot traffic. Climate change is the major long-term cause of snail population decline. We work with state, county and private conservation agencies to preserve the snail and its habitat. Some private landowners have entered into voluntary protection agreements. 

The northern wild monkshood is a perennial plant that grows on shaded to partially shaded cliffs, algific talus slopes or on cool, streamside sites. It reproduces from both seed and small tubers, blooming between June and September, and is pollinated when bumble bees pry open the blossom to collect nectar and pollen. Threats to northern wild monkshood include contamination and filling of sinkholes, grazing and trampling by livestock and human foot traffic, as well as impacts from logging and maintenance of highways and power lines. These distinctive flowers were added to the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants in 1978. Since then, a variety of government and private conservation agencies have been working to preserve this fragile plant. Voluntary protection agreements have also been made with some private landowners in the area. 

Protecting rare habitats 

Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge is not alone, more than 60 national wildlife refuges across the country were created out of concern for one or more federally threatened or endangered species. One of the biggest threats facing many imperiled species is loss of suitable habitat, which is why protected places like the Driftless Area are so key in recovering at-risk plants and animals. 

Endangered species recovery is complex and difficult work, often requiring substantial time and resources. Species today face ongoing threats like habitat loss as well as new threats like climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.

Learn more about climate change
and wildlife trafficking. We have a continued commitment as a nation to protect imperiled species. 

Each of these species is a part of the web of life, each with a unique cultural and biological community, performing services that are essential to our combined well-being. By conserving them, we help ensure the benefits that accrue from them—healthy air, land and water—on which we depend. 

Know before you go 

What makes this refuge different than many of the others in this category is that people are welcome to visit and enjoy parts of the Driftless Area. Researchers have found that human foot traffic continues to be a major threat to the delicate algific talus slopes and the endangered species that live there, so those areas are closed to the public. Although visitors should avoid closed areas, there are some opportunities to hike, watch wildlife and hunt on the Howard Creek, Fern Ridge and Pine Creek units located in Clayton County, Iowa. There are no public use trails or amenities, so consider bringing water, bug repellent, sunscreen and food. Before visiting, consider contacting folks at the refuge to better understand which areas are open to the public and to avoid disrupting sensitive habitat during your visit. By recreating responsibly, you can help protect these threatened and endangered species by lessening your impact on this rare habitat. 

Learn more about Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge

Story Tags

Endangered and/or Threatened species
Flowering plants
Habitat conservation
Wildlife refuges