Stop 5 Prairie Wildlife

Elk once outnumbered bison in Iowa, but were hunted so heavily that they disappeared from the state by 1870. Free-roaming elk are not found in Iowa and the refuge herd numbers about 15 to 20. Photo by Eileen Vanderbaard of a bull Elk.

Prior to the arrival of the European-American settlers in the mid-1800s, the vast tallgrass prairie provided habitat, including food, water, shelter and space for a variety of wildlife. Countless numbers of bison and elk, cougars, bears, wolves, prairie chickens, and many other species roamed the prairies.


During the late 1800s, market hunting and destruction of prairie for farms, towns and roads caused many animal species to be extirpated from Iowa. Some animals, like insects, adapted to living in small prairie fragments, roadside ditches, and pastures. Reconstructing prairie provides habitat that allows wildlife to expand their range.


However, animals like bison and wolves that require large tracts of uninterrupted land could no longer survive in a landscape now dominated by corn and soybeans.


Thirteen-lined ground squirrels, locally known as squinnies, build burrows under the ground and hibernate for six months out of the year. Photo by Thomas Dunkerton of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel.
Many prairie animals live under the ground and some build burrows for shelter. Photo by Thomas Dunkerton of a burrow entrance.

Tallgrass prairie is making a comeback at Neal Smith NWR, other areas of Iowa, and the Midwest. People are recognizing the benefits and uniqueness of this endangered ecosystem. While some animals, like birds, can find their way to rebuilt prairies, others cannot. They will not return unless they are reintroduced to their native habitat.


The fence you see is part of an 800-acre enclosure that provides habitat for bison and elk. They were reintroduced because they play a key role in the prairie ecosystem.

Many grassland birds, like the dickcissel, found their way to the refuge’s reconstructed prairies. Photo by Thomas Dunkerton of a dickcissel perched on a compass plant.

The reconstructed and restored prairies support an abundance of wildlife and an intricate food chain. Mice, rabbits, birds, grasshoppers, and others, feed on the prairie plants. In turn, these animals become food for predators such as coyotes, snakes, hawks, and dragonflies.


During your tour, look for birds flying above the prairie and animals hiding and moving among the grasses and wildflowers.


Continue to the next stop to learn about the refuge's reintroduction and management of the iconic prairie species, the American Bison. 

Coyotes are one of the top predators at the refuge. Photo of a coyote by Thomas Dunkerton.
Turtles and other reptiles are an important part of the prairie food chain. Photo by Thomas Dunkerton of a snapping turtle.