Less than 1%. Why is that number significant? That’s how much original tall grass prairie remains in the United States. Think about that for a second. An ecosystem that once ranged from Manitoba down to Texas through the heartland of this country is now barely a blip on the map.
Where did it all go? Quite simply, that land is now agricultural land, largely in the form of corn and soybean fields. The story behind that transformation is fascinating and tragic and is largely the story of all natural lands in this country. Gone by way of development.
We decided to first break into this new ecosystem in a place where the story practically started. We visited Rochester Cemetery near Rochester, Iowa. This area was home to some of Iowa’s first settlers, dating back to the 1830s. The cemetery itself holds several hundred grave sites, many of which date back to the 1800s and early 1900s. Most of the people buried here were either farmers or relatives of farmers. That’s just the way it was and still remains for many of Iowa’s communities.
But this place is also very controversial. Why? Because it is also home to 14 acres of original tall grass prairie, which the gravestones poke out from within. Many relatives of the dead would love nothing more than to cut down the remaining prairie and have a manicured lawn that represents something respectful in their opinion. Others love the idea of their relatives resting among 300+ species of original prairie plants that exist almost nowhere else in the world. Who is right?
A compromise of sorts has been reached. Some people mow their family plots, while others let it all grow wild. But there remains hard feelings from each side.
But let me tell you, this original prairie, combined with some of the stateliest white oaks I’ve ever seen make quite a sight to behold. I was simply in awe the entire time. While standing there, I could almost imagine what the original prairie must have looked like. This was one of the most inspirational places I’ve ever visited.
We spent two days taking pictures and recording the sights of this place. We even got lucky enough to record an afternoon thunderstorm passing over while songbirds and frogs formed a decidedly spring chorus. Throughout our time, we recorded almost 40 species of birds, while also capturing a wonderful morning chorus of birds and frogs.
After leaving Rochester Cemetery, we headed west to Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in central Iowa. This refuge is named after former congressman Neal Edward Smith who advocated for its creation. Unlike Rochester Cemetery, the refuge contains almost no remnant prairie and is instead a nearly 15,000 acre prairie and oak savanna restoration project in progress.
The refuge holds small herds of bison and elk, both of which once roamed freely in the original prairie that covered the plains states. However, our focus while there was prairie bird species. Our focal species for this ecosystem is the Bobolink and I thought for sure we’d find plenty in the refuge. Unfortunately, after two days all I got was a distant glimpse of one flying away from the prairie. This was incredibly disappointing to say the least and made us worry we would have to find a new focal species.
However, what we did find were plenty of Dickcissels, Ring-necked Pheasants, Sedge Wrens, and Henslow’s Sparrows, all of which we documented very well and are excited to share with you!
Neal Smith NWR is also a laboratory for a somewhat new farming practice known as prairie strips. What is a prairie strip? Well, to put it simply, it’s a strip of prairie land about 50 feet wide within farm fields that protect waterways from runoff during heavy rain events by filtering nutrients and sediments. This is critical to keeping dangerous nitrates out of drinking water and keeping nitrates and other nutrients out of the Gulf of Mexico to reduce the size of the ‘Dead Zone’. We found out that for every 1 lb of corn produced in the state, 3 lbs of top soil are lost to runoff. Not a very sustainable way of making a living, which has led to a near complete loss of topsoil in many locations. Prairie strips are meant to help prevent this.
We spoke to a farmer in north central Iowa who has implemented prairie strips and winter cover crops into his practice, which has drastically reduced the amount of runoff from his land. Why other farmers don’t implement these practices is quite complicated and is something we’ll discuss in our podcast we’ll release this fall.
After leaving central Iowa, we made our way to northwest Iowa to the town of Storm Lake. Here we met with Pulitzer Prize winning author Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times to further discuss a myriad of topics. It was an honor to spend a couple of hours with him discussing farming practices, corporate agriculture, the politics of farming, dark money, trade wars, the rehabilitation of the town’s most prized landmark, Storm Lake, and Iowa culture in general. The interview was so powerful and informative that we walked away feeling a little more like Iowans than we ever imagined we would.
Our last stop was a little slice of heaven in southwest Minnesota called Touch-the-Sky Prairie. This 1000 acre tract of land was created through the collaboration of various federal, state, and private entities. World renowned National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg played a role in its creation and we were fortunate enough to be able to talk to him about the challenges and rewards of creating the refuge, including the revival of the ultra-rare Western-fringed Prairie Orchid.
The refuge contains some remnant prairie, but is mostly comprised of reclaimed farmland, which is starting to mature into fine specimens of tall grass prairie. There also exists a very rare prairie waterfall, which carries the burden of soil runoff from neighboring farms who haven’t implemented prairie strips.
It was at Touch-the-Sky we finally found our Bobolinks. Over 50 dotted the landscape as they took to the sky to exhibit their territorial flight displays, while babbling their mechanical and bubbly songs. We got incredible footage of this for two straight days. At times, we didn’t know which way to aim the lens or microphones because there were so many!
On my last night there, I sat and watched the night sky slowly overtake the day, and the insect and frog chorus slowly replace the birds. I watched and listened to prairie birds settle in for the night and deliver their last bouts of song in an effort to claim what’s theirs. I imagined that this was a scene that played out for many who were fortunate enough to witness the tall grass prairie before its destruction. I was glad to be able experience this very rare scene that once played out across a continent.