Neal Smith Prairie Refuge | Where the Buffalo Roam in a Restored Prairie


Three dozen bison roam of portion of the refuge. (Photo © Lin Mullenneaux)

Dusk. A craggy soulful face with curious white eyes beneath a full black mane towers over us. Two massive horns jut from the creature’s head. He stops in the middle of the road and turns his attention to us. He must weigh a ton or more.

“Think we should get out of here?” my traveling companion asks. We look around. On the side of the road a frisky bison calf leaps about with toddler energy, then races back to the safety of its mother’s legs.

Nearby a huge patriarch throws himself on the ground and scratches the back of his neck vigorously while clouds of dust rise around him.
“I think as long as we stay in the car, we’re okay.”

Magnificent. Thrilling. Even a little scary. Dusk is buffalo migration time here at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center. My girlfriend and I are on the first day of a summer weekend getaway, and already the experience has exceeded all expectations.

Prairie Expanse

The refuge sprawls across 6,000 acres near Prairie City, a half hour east of Des Moines. We were tipped off to this dusk bison experience by the owners of the B and B we’re staying at, a cozy farmhouse called the Country Connection on a rural acreage five minutes’ drive from here.

In the evening we return to our lodging and homemade ice cream. In the morning we’re off again. To reach the Prairie Learning Center, the nucleus of the Refuge, you drive through miles of rolling prairie-seeded pastoral. It’s almost like traveling back in time, as we imagine what this land was like a hundred years ago.

Then, tallgrass prairie (as opposed to the mixed-grass varieties to the west of Iowa) bloomed across 85 percent of Iowa. Today just a tenth of one percent remains.

A Cool Learning Center

At the Learning Center, a busload of school kids wanders among the exhibits, calling out to their friends when something in particular arouses their excitement, which is often. A mischievous volunteer at the information desk demonstrates how he teases the kids with a hidden bird whistle.

We watch a selection of short videos: one on sustainable agriculture pioneer Aldo Leopold, another a look at pioneer life through the eyes of a land surveyor, even a cool little music video featuring children dancing around and protecting the prairie.

It’s a very kid-friendly place. There’s an underground maze where you can pretend you’re a bug. And a rhizome exhibit showing how extensive prairie roots are.

The exhibits reflect on all aspects of this land’s history – pioneer life, native Americans, the railroad. Personally, I could have done with more exploration of the importance of preserving habitats before they are destroyed. Nevertheless, there’s good work being done here.

This is the largest federal prairie reconstruction effort in the U.S. The center’s mandate is to restore small prairie remnants, reconstruct prairies by planting seeds, reintroduce bison and elk herds, use fire to encourage prairie and control non-native plants, and restore oak savanna by removing trees that don’t belong.

The Lure of the Grasslands

The main attraction, of course, lies outside this building.

As we exit, the kids are getting a guided tour of the land, which includes the identification of plant and animal habitat and a little weed pulling.

Nancy Gilbertson, Refuge Manager, says public education is a top priority here. “The kids learn what the prairie was like prior to development, and what the refuge is doing to bring back part of Iowa’s heritage,” Gilbertson notes. “They learn about the natural history of the bison, and how native Americans used every single part of them.”

My companion and I decide to strike out on our own. An auto tour is available, but we choose the four-kilometer tallgrass hiking trail, which winds through part of the refuge.

It’s a beautiful, sunny day. A number of red-winged blackbirds zipby. Something that looks like a pheasant erupts from a slough. We don’t see any elk, or fox. Overall, not a lot of activity today, but it feels good just being out here. The wind is fierce and there are few trees to stop its flow over the rolling hills. A single craggy tree presiding over a distant hill has a Willa Cather prairie feel.

A brochure I picked up in the Center notes that over 350 species of birds and nearly 100 species of mammals once called this prairie home. Three types of ecosystems then common to Iowa exist side by side here: prairie grassesand wildflowers, savanna trees and plants, and woodlands. Savannas are scattered tree groves with prairie plants beneath them, including Iowa’s statetree, the Burr Oak.

In the 1970s this land was held by an electric company. Weirdly, these rolling hills could have become home to a nuclear power plant. But the company decided to divest itself of the land and in 1990, U.S. Congressman Neal Smith got into the act. A strong environmental education proponent, Smith had a vision to create a place where the children of Iowa could see what prairie was once like.

It wasn’t the kind of set-up the National Park Services dealt with, since they only preserve what is already there. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came in to oversee an actual restoration of the land.

The Role of Volunteers

Nowadays, some 200 volunteers show up at least once a month; others come less often. Knees-in-the-dirt folks, they tear down old fences, plant flowers, cut trees, work in the resource library, staff the bookstore. The Friends of the Prairie Learning Center logged 23,000 volunteer hours last year.

Another cool thing: Volunteers have formed groups called Seed Seekers, which contact landowners with remnant prairies and ask for donations of local ecotypeseeds. They catalog these seeds, which are then planted on the refuge according to their type, wetland or savannah, say.

Birds & Wildlife Return

A staff land management and research biologist oversees research here, ranging from hydrology to erosion studies. A number of universities are also conducting research.

“We have a long way to go, a lot to learn,” Gilbertson says. “The land had all been artificially drained. The river had been channeled, and most of it was tiled for agriculture. It’d be expensive to cut all the tiles out. We’d like to do that, maybe down the road.”

But one measure of the refuge’s success, Gilbertson says, is the wildlife response. Lots of grassland nesting birds are coming back, like the Henslow Sparrow. “We’d also like to bring back the prairie chicken,” shesays. The bird, which thrives only on large prairie sites, is a bird-watcher’s favorite and disappeared from the state in the ’50s.

Does the idea of restoring some land to its original state conflict with the needs of those who make their living off the land?

“We all need to eat and make a living,” Gilbertson says. “Farmers can take advantage of programs designed to help them work with nature, such as CRP.”

“Besides,” she notes, “the private landowners are really the ones who will save the ecosystems. The government can’t buy enough land to do this.”

Connected by Nature

It’ll never be like it was, Gilbertson admits, but she’d like to see more green infrastructure in Iowa. “If you can work with a community to put green spaces here and there, work with zoning, you can have connectivity to larger pieces of land, river corridors, prairie corridors. It’s all about connections.”

As for the Refuge, Gilbertson sees it as a kind of experiment. “Give it another 50 years. Think about what was here before people took the plough to it. We’re [replicating] it as closely as we can.”

Far off across the hill, my friend and I spot the bison herd—35 to 40 animals, roaming on 700 acres.

We’ve strolled the four-kilometer trail and we’re getting hungry. It’s time to leave the prairie behind. But we carry with us the memory of those grand creatures striding across the blooming prairie.

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