Wildlife & Habitat

Summer Prairie

  • Bison

    Bison 2

    Bison once numbered in the millions and roamed great distances across the prairies. These large herds had a huge impact on the prairie ecosystem. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge has a small herd of bison in an 800-acre enclosure that helps shape the tallgrass prairie ecosystem; they can sometimes be seen from your vehicle on the auto tour route, Tallgrass and Overlook Trails and the Visitor Center. Bison calves are born between April and August. Bison are attracted to areas that have been recently burned, where fresh green sprouts provide a protein-rich food source. At Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, the bison are being managed to maintain genetic diversity and a healthy herd.

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  • Elk

    elk 150x118

    Elk were once common in the tallgrass prairie of Iowa. The elk at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are here to replay the role they historically had in this ecosystem. The elk share an 800-acre fenced area with the bison. The elk eat grasses, wildflowers and woody plants. Often secretive, they are best seen late fall through early spring when the prairie is dormant and shorter. During the summer and when it is warmer, they are easier to spot during the cooler times of the day. Management of elk at Neal Smith NWR primarily consists of monitoring their health and controlling the population size.

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  • Grassland Birds

    Henslow's Sparrow 2

    Prairies are important habitat for a diversity of grassland birds. Many species of grassland birds have been declining throughout the continent since prairies were first plowed. Some grassland bird species that use Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge for nesting include upland sandpiper, sedge wren, Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrow, common yellowthroat, dickcissel, Eastern and Western meadowlark, and bobolink. During spring and fall migration, the Refuge also hosts clay-colored, LeConte’s, and savanna sparrows, and Smith’s and Lapland longspurs. During the winter, American tree sparrows are abundant. Northern harriers and short-eared owls are present during migration and in winter.

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  • Monarch Butterfly


    Monarch butterflies can often be seen from May to October, feeding on the nectar of prairie plants. The Refuge hosts several species of milkweed, the only plant on which Monarchs lay their eggs. Visitors may see eggs and/or caterpillars on the leaves of milkweeds. The butterfly garden in front of the Prairie Learning Center and the Tallgrass Trail are good places to see Monarchs in all life stages on the Refuge. In fall, Monarchs migrate south to spend the winter in Mexico. September is a good time to see them migrating through the Refuge, stopping to rest and feed on the abundant fall wildflowers. In fact, as part of the Monarch Watch program, volunteers and students tag migrating Monarchs during September; to help with this effort, contact Nancy Corona at 515-994-3400.

  • Tallgrass Prairie

    Grey-headed Coneflowers and Blazing Star

    Tallgrass prairie is a fire-dependent ecosystem characterized by tall grasses (up to 10 feet tall), wildflowers, and deep, rich soils. Tallgrass prairie once covered parts of 14 states in the Midwest, including about 80% of Iowa. Today less than 0.1% of the original tallgrass prairie in Iowa remains. At Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, more than 200 species of prairie plants have been seeded into former farm fields to date. The Refuge also includes about 90 acres of prairie remnants.  Fire and grazing by bison and elk invigorate the prairie plants and prevent trees from growing.

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  • Oak Savanna

    late afternoon winter savanna cms

    Oak savanna is a fire-dependent ecosystem that typically has spreading, open-grown oak trees with sun-loving grasses, sedges, and wildflowers growing under them. The non-woody plants and oak leaves provide fuel for fire that is often slow and creeping, compared to the fast-moving prairie fires. The shifting light under the trees provides an environment for a unique mixture of understory plants. Species typical of prairie and forest occur together, in addition to species found only in the savanna community. Restoring oak savannas requires removing fire-intolerant trees and burning the understory to allow light to reach the ground.  See an oak savanna undergoing restoration by walking the Savanna Trail; pick up a map and brochure in the Visitor Center.

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  • Sedge Meadow

    Sedge Meadow updated

    Sedge meadows, or wet prairies, occur in sunny areas where the soil holds water for extended periods. Like prairies, frequent fire is required to maintain the plants, consisting of a wide diversity of sedges, wildflowers, and other non-woody plants. Conditions supporting sedge meadows can be found along streams such as Walnut Creek and smaller drainages, and even on hillsides where seeps emerge. They can consist of small patches or long strips, so the species of plants and animals found in them overlap with the adjacent prairies. The Refuge is restoring sedge meadows by burning and by planting sedge meadow species.