Iowa Prairie Restoration | Iowa Land and Sky
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Iowa Prairie Restoration | Iowa Land and Sky

♪♪ If you passed
through Iowa thousands of years ago, the land of
corn and soybeans would look more like this – open
prairie as far as the eye can see. ♪♪ An ecosystem of
apparent simplicity from hundreds of feet above,
but fly closer to the land below, and you discover
a vibrant environment. Stretching for miles in
Central Iowa, the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge –
once farmland, but now restored prairie. Karen Viste-Sparkman: Most
of this is what we call restored or
reconstructed prairie. So it started out as farm
fields when the refuge started
anyway. Established in 1990,
specialists began seeding the former farmland
with seeds from remnant prairies, known for
their more advanced biodiversity. Karen Viste-Sparkman: So
the area that our seed comes from is 39
counties in Iowa. So it’s a pretty big area
that we have seed from. So we hope that preserves
some of the genetic diversity. There’s more to a prairie
though than the plants. So there’s insects and
other animals, in the soil there’s bacteria. Meticulously restored
prairies may contain up to 100 different species of
grasses and flora, but that pales in comparison
to well-maintained remnant tracts that can contain
nearly 400 different species. It’s a biodiversity that
can take hundreds or thousands of
years to create. Biologists at Neal Smith
Refuge believe it will take far more than the
past 30 years for a restored prairie to
more closely resemble a remnant. Karen Viste-Sparkman:
Well, it’s probably going to take centuries. It changes over time and
it will just keep changing through time. We’re not sure if it’s
ever going to be like a remnant prairie. Iowa prairies like Neal
Smith are surrounded by rural roads, which present
their own issues for prairie ecosystems and a
phenomenon known as the prairie “edge effect”. Karen Viste-Sparkman: In
the prairie, especially in Iowa, we have a road
about every mile. And so there is always
that edge right around the roads and where there’s
adjacent farm fields. What that means is there’s
avenues for some of the invasive plant
species to come in. There’s a lot of
disturbance from just vehicles going by. So in terms of the
wildlife that live here, they might be more likely
to get hit by a car and killed. But it just kind of
disrupts the prairie so it’s not continuous. The vast majority of
Iowa’s soil is tilled and planted with corn
and soybeans. To find true remnant
prairies you can look to the state’s western
border, north of Sioux City. That’s where you will
find the Broken Kettle Grasslands, Iowa’s
largest remaining tract of original prairie. Karen Viste-Sparkman: The
remnants that are left are, a lot of them are
places that were not farmed for some reasons. The prairie plants
have deep roots. They help hold the soil
and prevent erosion from happening and that helps
keep the waterways clean. So there’s just a variety
of benefits we get from prairie. Encompassing 6,000 acres,
Broken Kettle is also Iowa’s largest preserve
and it contains more than 200 of the largest land
mammals in North America, bison. Re-introduced to Broken
Kettle in 2008, the herd now wanders through
remnant Iowa prairie. It’s an image harkening
back to Iowa’s landscape only centuries ago. Bison are grass-eating
herbivores, right at home in remnant prairie grasses
that once covered the land of corn and soybeans. Karen Viste-Sparkman:
Just the root systems of prairie plants go really
deep into the soil so it’s able to take carbon
from the air and other nutrients and put them
down into the ground and then through centuries
of those plants dying and decomposing they just
helped build the soil and kept it in place. Really we wouldn’t have
this farmland in Iowa if prairie hadn’t built
the soil that we use. ♪♪ Funding for Iowa
Land and Sky provided by The Resource Enhancement
and Protection Conservation
Education Program. The Gilchrist Foundation,
founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist, furthering the
philanthropic interests of the Gilchrist family in
wildlife and conservation, the arts and public
broadcasting and disaster relief. ♪♪

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