Updated: Feb 11
After a brief respite, the journey to follow the 1835 Iowa Dragoons Expedition got back underway on June 3, 2021, at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (NSNWR) south of Prairie City, Iowa. Established in 1990, today NSNWR plays host to herd of bison usually numbering between 50-70 animals. A modern remnant of Iowa's deeper environmental past, bison once occupied the plains and prairies of the state in numbers almost unfathomable today. On an expedition prior to the Dragoons 1835, Kearney recorded as many as 5,000 bison near modern-day Northwood, Iowa, and other records consistently record sizable herds throughout the state. The NSNWR hosts the modern herd in an 800-acre fenced enclosure viewable via an auto-tour route. On the evening prior to taking up the 'Notes on Iowa' march across the state, I viewed three male bison near the road crossing through the enclosure. The following morning, I spotted the majority of the herd before beginning the walk for the day.
The staff at Neal Smith work tirelessly to maintain the herd's genetic diversity. Staff routinely collect blood and hair samples from the individual bison for comparison with other herd members, as well as other bison managed by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. When the herd at NSNWR grows large, bison with unique genetic profiles stay at the refuge while other, more genetically common bison, find new homes with other herds. Yearlings constitute the majority of bison relocated from the refuge.
The bison themselves play an important role in assisting with the prairie restoration work also taking place at Neal Smith. As the herd grazes, the prairie finds renewal through stimulation of grass growth while helping to maintain biodiversity. Bison also help to create habitat for other birds, insects, and amphibians through their constant interactions with the prairie. Wallows capture water to create habitat for amphibians and aquatic insects, while birds often find recently grazed areas as ideal habitat.
The NSNWR also includes 90 acres of remnant prairie, or native plant populations continuously growing in the same location from a time pre-dating American colonization of Iowa. Although tallgrass prairie once covered roughly 80% of Iowa, remnant prairie constitutes only about 0.1% of current lands within the state. The plants surviving in remnant prairies represent uniquely adapted genetic profiles well-suited to the distinct soil and climate conditions of Iowa. Additionally, the refuge maintains a variety of replanted prairie on the 6,000 acre site. Over 200 species of prairie plants occupy NSNWR today, and the staff carefully manages the flora throughout the refuge to monitor encroachment by invasive plant species. Fire also plays a critical role in prairie maintenance, and refuge staff practice prescribed burning primarily during the late fall and early spring of each year on a rotating basis.
Elk, another species of animal once incredibly abundant in Iowa, also call the refuge home. Much more difficult to spot on a visit to Neal Smith when compared with bison, a herd of 15-20 elk also inhabit the enclosed 800-acre fenced area on the refuge. Like bison, the elk of Neal Smith help to promote the growth and maintenance of the prairie through grazing of forbs, trees, and shrubs.
The name of the refuge memorializes Neal Edward Smith, United States congressmen representing Iowa from 1959-1995. A native of the Hedrick area of Keokuk County, Smith served as a bomber pilot in World War II. The United States government awarded Smith a Purple Heart, nine Battle stars, and the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters for his service following the downing of a plane he piloted. A Drake University law graduate, Smith served as the assistant county attorney for Polk County before running for the United States House of Representatives in 1958. The people of Iowa reelected him 17 more times from his Des Moines based district. When the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service created the refuge in 1990, it chose to recognize Smith by naming the refuge in his honor.
Starting Part 2 of my walk across Iowa at the refuge filled my mind with thoughts about native plant and animal life. As I continue to consider the incredible environmental change taking place in Iowa from the time of Albert Lea's observations in 1835 to my own in 2021 changes to plant and animal life continue to serve as a major focus of my work.
Departing the refuge, I walked south toward the small town of Vandalia. Founded by John Quincy Deakin in 1845, and originally named Quincy, the town grew over the course of the mid-1800s. By 1865, the town boasted a new name (Vandalia), as well as a population of nearly 500, four general stores, two mills, two hotels, three blacksmith shops, and other amenities. Part of the early prosperity of the town resulted from the Keokuk to Omaha stagecoach route running through the town. From an early point of prosperity, Vandalia slowly declined to a small village of less than 60 persons. Passing through the town, I caught Vandalia Road, a remnant of the old stagecoach route running west toward Des Moines.
Still solidly in the southern drift plain geographically, the route for the day featured a series of rapidly ascending and descending hills. Located a few miles north of the Des Moines River, the route provided many interesting agricultural views before eventually leading closer to Iowa's capitol city of Des Moines.
Ultimately, the day's walking ended just short of Des Moines along the river at Yellow Banks Park. Majestic 140-foot tall loess soil bluffs flank the river within the park, offering visitors exceptional views of the area. The roughly 600-acre park maintained by Polk County Conservation contains exceptional opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor activities.
The park also holds clues to Iowa's deeper past. In the 1960s, railroad work through the area uncovered large numbers of artifacts related to Iowa's Indigenous past including hunting weapons, food preparation utensils, ceremonial objects, and large burial mounds. The archeological significance of the area led to a halt in railroad construction. Polk County Conservation acquired the lands for the park in 1980, and today the area offers a glimpse into Iowa's environmental, archeological, and Indigenous past.