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Acre by acre, some Iowans try to restore the state’s natural prairie

Kelly Madigan looks out across the Loess Hills that rest in her backyard in Monona County.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Kelly Madigan looks out across the Loess Hills that rest in her backyard in Monona County. She's reintroducing prairie on her property in hopes of bringing back the wildlife that Iowa has lost.

As Kelly Madigan ducks under branches and pushes aside brush, it’s clear that she’s familiar with the landscape.

She looks natural as she hikes up the part of the Loess Hills that lies in her backyard in Monona County, the water bottle on her hip bobbing as she ascends the lush landscape. In 2020, she walked the 260 miles it takes to pass through the entirety of the unique landform – trekking all the way from Plymouth County to the Missouri border.

As she walked, she said it became clear to her how fragmented Iowa’s natural areas really are.

“We have made those strips of where plants and insects and a variety of animals can live, we've made them so narrow,” Madigan said, reflecting on her voyage. “And, in some places, they've disappeared altogether.”

Kelly Madigan hikes through a patch of tallgrass prairie.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Kelly Madigan hikes through a patch of tallgrass prairie. Iowa has nearly lost all of its remnant prairie. That's why residents like Madigan are reintroducing it onto their property.

Before farmland covered more than 90 percent of the state, the vast majority of Iowa was prairie. But, the tall green fields dotted with wildflowers that once dominated the state began to vanish as settlers put it under the plow.

Now, only a tiny sliver of Iowa prairie land – less than 0.1 percent – remains untouched by the agriculture and development that surrounds it. It’s speckled in small patches across the state, and in Madigan’s backyard.

“Those remnants to me are super important to preserve,” she said. “They're like a little lifeboat of what's left.”

Today, Iowa is one of the most biologically altered states in the nation. That’s why Madigan is reintroducing prairie onto her own property. She said she’s committed to not only conserving what’s left of Iowa’s natural lands, but to bringing its wildlife back.

Madigan is just one of many Iowans who are dedicating themselves to resurrecting Iowa’s natural habitats — and the wildlife that comes with it.

“They're like a little lifeboat of what's left.”
Kelly Madigan, Monona County resident

Bridging the gaps 

That’s been a mission of The Nature Conservancy in Iowa for decades. Since it first began conservation work in the state in 1963, the organization has been collaborating with landowners to bring back wildlife by converting Iowa land to its natural state.

On the Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve, interim land director Graham McGaffin excitedly pointed out the bison that grazed and the birds that flew over the Loess Hills. He said it’s one of the state’s most biodiverse areas because it holds 75 percent of Iowa’s grassland prairies.

“You've got Ornate box turtles that exist in the hills, plains pocket mouse, the Great Plains skink,” he said. “You just got a ton of species and the hills are so unique.”

Those species not only need space to roam, but McGaffin said it’s also important to consider animal migration patterns. Migration is difficult to accomplish on Iowa’s public conservation lands – which are largely isolated dots of natural protection.

The organization focuses on trying to connect those fragmented spaces.

“You can get a bigger conservation or biodiversity bang for your buck if you protect a corridor, and can really connect those islands of conservation,” McGaffin said.

The Nature Conservancy in Iowa interim land director Graham McGaffin stands in front of the Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve. It's just one conservation area that the organization is looking to expand.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
The Nature Conservancy in Iowa interim land director Graham McGaffin stands in front of the Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve. It's just one conservation area that the organization is looking to expand.

Fighting for land

It’s not without its challenges. McGaffin said land acquisitions average under 100 acres per purchase in the Loess Hills region – meaning conservation happens bit by bit, year after year.

“It's essential that you'd be thinking, ‘I can't just do this one project and move on.’ I got to think about how this project goes into the next project goes into the next,” he said.

Some even want to curb those slow-moving gains. Earlier this session, Republican state legislators introduced a bill that would limit the money county conservation boards and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources could spend on buying land. They argued taking acres out of production meant fewer opportunities for young people to get into farming.

The measure failed to advance. But Loess Hills land stewardship director at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Kody Wohlers, said it’s an example of the tension conservation organizations often face in their work.

“In an agricultural-dominated state, it's always going to be kind of an uphill battle,” Wohlers said.

Wohlers said the state’s focus on agriculture often leads to even land with low corn suitability rating being farmed rather than conserved. All land is viewed through the lens of dollar signs, not protection, Wohlers said.

“They want bigger acres, they want more continuous acres – which drives land prices up and makes it tougher for us to preserve some of it,” he said.

But, the lack of protected natural land isn’t sustainable for Iowa’s wildlife, said Briar Cliff University associate professor of biology David Hoferer. The destruction of the ecosystem is part of what has led to 47 animals and 64 plants being listed as endangered within the state.

“We don’t have any time anymore. We're at a crisis point. Either we do something this decade, or we're gonna see massive, massive extinctions over the rest of the century,” he said.

Hoferer said it will take thousands of individual landowners stepping up to implement conservation practices to reverse this. He said the state should focus on incentivizing farmers to reintroduce natural habitats on steep or flood-prone lands.

"We're at a crisis point. Either we do something this decade, or we're gonna see massive, massive extinctions over the rest of the century."
David Hoferer, associate professor of biology at Briar Cliff University

Iowa BeWild ReWild estimates that around one-fourth of Iowa could become natural again, if marginal lands not suitable for farming were put into permanent conservation easements.

“If that sounds hard, that’s because it is,” Hoferer said. “We have to talk with landowners. We have to understand who they are, what their needs are, what their problems are.”

Finding a balance

Some farmers, like Lee Tesdell, have already begun to integrate wild spaces into their land.

On a sunny day in July, he points to the vibrant patches of purple and yellow that are sprinkled across his farm. Wild vegetation is interwoven in his soybean fields. That’s because 4 years ago, he planted strips of prairie across his 80 acres in Polk County.

Lee Tesdell stands in one of his prairie strips on his farm in Slater. He said the wild vegetation has helped him to reduce his water pollution.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Lee Tesdell stands in one of his prairie strips on his farm in Slater. He said the wild vegetation has helped him to reduce his water pollution.

He had to sink his own funds into making the prairie thrive – but he said it’s worth it for the benefits. The strips can reduce sediment movement by 95 percent, according to Iowa State University. Their benefits range from improving soil quality to reducing water pollution.

“Our water quality is actually declining, not getting better,” Tesdell said. “So, we should probably do a lot more of it. We should have a lot more prairie strips and buffer strips along creeks and rivers.”

Wildflowers poke out of Lee Tesdell's prairie strips.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Wildflowers poke out of Lee Tesdell's prairie strips.

Tesdell said it’s hard to measure exactly how much topsoil the prairie strips have prevented from leaving the farm and leaking into nearby waterways. But, he said he’s reduced the nitrate levels in his tile water.

And, since he planted the prairie seed, he's watched as the biodiversity on his farm has bloomed.

“I saw a coyote coming by and then a raccoon came by, and a skunk came by, then a badger came out to check everything out,” he said. “So, there's a lot of critters down there.”

It brings out the wild side of his farm. That’s something, Tesdell said, Iowa could do with a lot more of.

Editor's Note: This story was changed to correct that Lee Tesdell's farm is located in Polk County, and to clarify that Kelly Madigan is not a part of the rewilding movement.

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.