Iowa Wildlife Refuge

You may not think of this as a state "teeming" with wildlife, but you can find an Iowa wildlife refuge in several locations across the state. The DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge and the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge are two of the most important ones. There are four other national sites, including the Driftless Area (775 acres quite near Effigy Mounds National Monument), Port Louisa (8,373 acres about halfway between Davenport and Iowa City), Union Slough (3,334 acres in the north central part of the state), and the Iowa Wetland Management Area that is part of Union Slough.

Additionally, the state Department of Natural Resources manages a number of areas that protect Iowa's indigenous wildlife. Camping and hunting (especially of deer, wild turkey, and other game fowl) are allowed in these areas as well as on private land. One of the most important wildlife ecosystems in the state is the tall grass prairie of the Great Plains that once covered as much as 80 percent of the state, which has made great efforts to restore and protect it. When you look for a wildlife refuge in Iowa you will even find it among the 81 acres of beautifully-restored tall grass prairie at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

Probably the most significant strides in restoring the tall grass prairies is at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge and its Prairie Learning Center. Established in 1990 and located only eighteen miles east of Des Moines, this Iowa wildlife refuge has the unprecedented mission to re-establish the tall grass prairie and restore the native oak savanna within its 8,654 acres. The Great Plains once covered a good portion of the Central United States in fourteen states, cutting a great swathe from Canada, Montana, and the Dakotas south through Oklahoma, Iowa, and Texas. An estimated 30 to 75 million bison once roamed these plains, that are now almost completely degraded save for pockets found at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge and similar refuges in Kansas, Illinois, and Oklahoma. Another wildlife refuge in Iowa that protects the tall grass prairie is Broken Kettle in the Loess Hills along the Missouri River.

In only a couple decades, the prairie restoration process at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge has provided safe haven for a tremendous diversity of life, including hundreds of plant species, over 200 bird species, and nearly 100 species of mammals. Both bison and elk have been reintroduced to demonstrate the natural role of large herbivores in the tall grass ecosystem.

About twenty miles north of Council Bluffs and Omaha (in Nebraska), is the 8,358 acre DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge that is part of a network of refuges created to protect and preserve the scarce habitat for migratory water fowl and other wildlife. It sits in the floodplain of the Missouri River. Every year, especially in the autumn, this wildlife refuge in Iowa boasts spectacular flights of geese and ducks, accompanied by warblers and shorebirds. Numerous bald eagles prey on the smaller birds. There is also a diverse variety of mammals, including deer, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes, and possums. This is also habitat for beavers, muskrats, and mink. This Iowa wildlife refuge is comprised of 8,358 acres in Iowa and Nebraska and lies in the Missouri River Valley on the prehistoric floodplain of the Missouri River Valley, and draws more than a quarter million visitors annually. While there is no camping here (the refuge closes at sunset each day), there are nearby state parks and campgrounds. Additionally, there are some excellent Council Bluffs hotels.

Important to the history of the area is Missouri River shipping, and over the years more than 400 steamboats were wrecked along its course. One of these, the 161-foot long Bretrand, sank in 1865. It was found and excavated in 1968. Thus, the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge also protects 200,000 pieces of one of the most significant collections of Civil War-era artifacts in the United States.

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