A tallgrass prairie near Prairie City

It’s hard to imagine, but 200 years ago a vast prairie ecosystem stretched across the Midwest and into Canada. The tallgrass prairie encompassed parts of 14 states, including nearly all of Iowa.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center allows us to return to that bygone era. The Refuge was created by an act of Congress in 1990 to re-create 8,000 acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna, the native plant and animal communities existing in central Iowa prior to European settlement.

The Refuge is located near Prairie City on Highway 163 in Jasper County and is a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System administered by the federal government. Amazingly, it’s the largest reconstruction of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in the entire U.S. It includes more than 200 types of native prairie flowers and grasses.

There are five miles of walking trails at the Refuge, upon which you can theoretically see pheasants, badgers, buffalo, elk, white-tailed deer, monarch butterflies, and a wide variety of native prairie flowers. I took the tallgrass trail Sunday evening, a two-mile blacktop trail with benches every third mile. I did see lots of prairie flowers, butterflies, birds, and an abundance of dragonflies and other insects. I’m not so sure I wanted to see a badger.

Other trails include the half-mile gravel Savanna Trail and a handicapped-accessible prairie overlook interpretive trail.

The Prairie Learning Center was closed when I was there (hours are 9-4 Monday through Saturday and noon-5 on Sunday), but it includes a visitor center with bookstore, theater, classrooms, and exhibit area.

An 800-acre drive-through bison enclosure is open dawn to dusk, seven days a week. The night I was there, I saw a few lone bison and a sizable herd – but they were fairly far away from the road.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, the Refuge staff and volunteers are “working with conservation officers, schools, scientists, and prairie enthusiasts to preserve a piece of Iowa’s natural heritage. Rare prairie and savanna seeds are being collected, studied, sown, and tended. Small savanna and prairie remnants within Refuge boundaries are being protected. Mowing, brush cutting, and prescribed burns are being used to manage both planting and remnant sites. Ongoing research is guiding the restoration processes.”

I just say it’s a lovely place to walk on a summer evening.

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