A really interesting place to learn about the prairie is at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge just east of Des Moines. While this is not the biggest Wildlife Refuge that Karen or I have ever been to they do have a state of the art learning center that explains what the prairie was and how they are taking farmland and converting it back to its natural state.
The Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is the largest prairie reconstruction project ever attempted, and the learning center there makes that fact hit home with just how difficult it is to take farm land and convert it back to native prairie. In 1990 an act by Congress created the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in an attempt to re-create 8,000 acres of farmland into a prairie. It started off with 3,600 acres and now has 8,654, much of it is still in the process of reconstruction. You might ask why it is important to take valuable farm land and convert it back to its natural state. The answer is that at one point prairie land covered over 80% of Iowa now there is less than 1%. Some of those species of plants and animals have become threatened and if something was not done they could have been lost. What the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge does is allow native species a chance to survive and blossom. The learning center on site does a wonderful job explaining why a place like the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is important.
Karen and I wanted to go to the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge to see the bison and elk which they have in a 700 acre enclosure. At the time that we were there (Fall 2011) they had a herd of75 bison and 25 elk. We were also lucky to see an American Mink which neither of us had seen before, but before I could get my camera ready and stop the car it had disappeared into the grass. Since we went in late November there were not a lot of birds or other creatures out in that cold Iowa weather.
We did hike the short trail that was just behind the learning center, which I think would have been a lot more enjoyable during a warmer less wet day, but it was nice and well marked. The best part of being there was the learning center. The learning center guide was extremely nice and since we were the only ones there at that time he gave us a little tour explaining a variety of things to us. He told us about the short video that they show which he went ahead and moved up the time for us since we were the only ones there. The video was well done. After the video we looked at the wonderful exhibits that they had on display a lot of them were interactive. Overall it was a great learning experience. Being two people from the Plains it was amazing to learn all these new things about a place we both have spent our whole lives living in.
Overall, the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge was better than we thought it was going to be. Karen and I did not have high expectations going in, but were amazed at how nice the learning center was. Seeing the prairie was just an added bonus. We recommend going just to see the learning center it is a great educational experience.
For more information visit their website at http://www.fws.gov/midwest/nealsmith/