Stop 2 Prairie Builders

Photo of two students hand collecting native seeds on the tallgrass prairie by Nancy Corona/USFWS.

The tallgrass prairie is characterized by deep, rich soils that support a variety of grasses, some growing to a height of ten feet. The common grasses include big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, and little bluestem. Additionally, the tallgrass prairie also contains numerous wildflowers species that add stunning colors to the landscape.

In the early 1800’s about 85% of Iowa was covered in tallgrass prairie. Today, less than 0.1% of Iowa’s prairie remains in small, isolated fragments. Early European-American settlers recognized the fertility off Iowa’s soil and plowed the prairie for cropland. As the human population grew, cities, roads and homes were developed and the prairies disappeared further.

A combine can be used to harvest thousands of pounds of native prairie seed each year on the refuge to rebuild more prairie. Photo of a combine harvesting prairie seeds by USFWS.
A variety of hand collected native seeds are labeled and cleaned in the refuge's seed lab. The seeds are added to a bulk seed mix to add diversity or planted in the greenhouse. Photo of trays filled with prairie seeds by Nancy Corona/USFWS.

Appreciating the need to preserve Iowa’s natural heritage, the refuge staff and volunteers continue to work to reconstruct or rebuild tallgrass prairie. The process of reconstructing prairie involves planting former agricultural fields. So far, the refuge has rebuilt 4,000 acres of prairie on the refuge’s 6,000 acres.

The refuge is also restoring prairie remnants, areas where native plants have survived. The maintenance buildings you see store tractors, a combine, seed spreaders, and other equipment used to reconstruct and manage the tallgrass prairie. 

Seedlings in trays by Nancy Corona/USFWS.
Photo by Nancy Corona/USFWS of young native prairie seedlings growing in soil-filled trays in the refuge's greenhouse.
The young seedlings grown in the greenhouse are transplanted from trays to "conetainers", specialized pots that allow plants to grow long root systems. Photo by Nancy Corona/USFWS of "conetainers" containing seedlings.

In the greenhouse, seeds collected from existing prairie are planted in trays filled with soil. Once the seedlings are well developed, which enables to better survive, volunteers and students plant them on the refuge. This increases the native plant diversity on the prairie. At the next stop, you will learn about additional management tools used to restore, rebuild, and maintain the tallgrass prairie.

Compass plant, named for its tendency to orient its leaves facing east and west, is an iconic tallgrass prairie species that can grow to a height of 10 feet or more. It blooms on the refuge’s prairies in July and August. Photo by Nancy Corona/USFWS of a volunteer standing next to a compass plant.