Where the buffalo roam

By Taylor on March 18, 2015 in Blog

Neal Smith NWR was established to re-create 8,600 acres of tallgrass prairie (pictured here) and oak savanna. (Photo by Gary Hamer)

Neal Smith NWR was established to re-create 8,600 acres of tallgrass prairie (pictured here) and oak savanna. (Photo by Gary Hamer)

With spring looming, it’s time to start thinking about the go-to destinations for enjoying the beauty of the Iowa outdoors. One of our favorites is just a short drive from Des Moines in Jasper County.

Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge belongs to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Created by Congress in 1990, this 700-acre refuge hosts hundreds of species of birds, plants and animals on its prairie grass.

The Refuge strives to achieve three basic goals:

  • To protect, restore and maintain native tallgrass prairie, wetland and woodland habitats and the natural processes integrated with these ecosystems
  • To protect, restore and maintain diverse populations of native wildlife associated with prairie, wetland and woodland ecosystems
  • To serve as a major environmental education center, providing opportunities for study and outdoor recreation benefits to the public


Tallgrass prairie is a fire-dependent ecosystem characterized by tall grasses and deep, rich soils. More than 200 species of prairie plants have been seeded at the Refuge, which also includes 77 acres of prairie remnants.

Oak savanna Also fire-dependent, oak savanna boasts the spread of open-grown trees and sun-loving plants. A healthy savanna has oak trees of varying age.

Sedge meadows Occurring in sunny areas, these wet prairies develop where the soil holds water for extended periods. Like tallgrass prairie and oak savanna, sedge meadows require frequent fire to maintain the vegetation.


The bison at Neal Smith are managed for their genetic diversity, in order to protect the genetic diversity of the herd at the refuge and throughout other herds managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo by Tim Laehn)

The bison at Neal Smith are managed in a way that protects the diversity of the herd at the Refuge and throughout other herds managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo by Tim Laehn)

Birds The Refuge is part of the Chichaqua Greenbelt-Neal Smith Bird Conservation area. Grassland birds such as Northern harriers, sedge wrens and even short-eared owls, among a plethora of others, make their homes at the Refuge.

Neal Smith Elk COPY

The Refuge has a captive herd of elk in its 700-acre enclosure.

Be on the lookout for gray catbirds, brown thrashers and orchard orioles, which use shrubs for feeding and nesting. Field sparrows, American goldfinches and many other species of shrub-using birds can also be spotted.

Insects Though small, insects and other invertebrates are still vital to prairies. Butterflies and ants are among those found at Neal Smith.

Mammals Bison, elk and white-tailed deer can be found grazing on the prairie at the Refuge. Fox squirrels and Indiana bats also hang around.

Education and Recreation

Curriculum Neal Smith uses Project Bluestem to provide kindergarten through fifth grade curriculum for kids. They study to become budding naturalists through writing in nature journals, tracking phenology and searching for wonder.

Volunteer People of all talents, ages and backgrounds who have an enthusiasm for volunteering and an interest in the tallgrass prairie are invited to help out at the Refuge. Volunteer projects vary according to need, ability and personal interest.

Visitor Center Facilities include a bookstore, theater, classrooms and exhibit area. Visitors are also able to explore the miles of trails extending from the Center and/or drive through the enclosure to spot bison or elk. Other outdoor activities featured include birding, hiking, biking, hunting and even mushrooming.

Membership Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge represents a wide range of people and groups that come together to support the mission of the Refuge. Learn more about becoming a member.