If you passed through Iowa thousands of years ago, the land of corn and soybeans would look more like this – open prairie as far as the eye can see. An ecosystem of apparent simplicity from hundreds of feet above, but fly closer to the land below, and you discover a vibrant environment.

Stretching for miles in Central Iowa, the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge – once farmland, but now restored prairie.

Karen Viste-Sparkman, Biologist, Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge: Most of this is what we call restored or reconstructed prairie. So it started out as farm fields when the refuge started anyway.

Established in 1990, specialists began seeding the former farmland with seeds from remnant prairies, known for their more advanced biodiversity.

Viste-Sparkman: So the area that our seed comes from is 39 counties in Iowa. So it’s a pretty big area that we have seed from. So we hope that preserves some of the genetic diversity. There’s more to a prairie though than the plants. So there’s insects and other animals, in the soil there’s bacteria.

Meticulously restored prairies may contain up to 100 different species of grasses and flora, but that pales in comparison to well-maintained remnant tracts that can contain nearly 400 different species. It’s a biodiversity that can take hundreds or thousands of years to create.

Biologists at Neal Smith Refuge believe it will take far more than the past 30 years for a restored prairie to more closely resemble a remnant.

Viste-Sparkman: Well, it’s probably going to take centuries. It changes over time and it will just keep changing through time. We’re not sure if it’s ever going to be like a remnant prairie.

Iowa prairies like Neal Smith are surrounded by rural roads, which present their own issues for prairie ecosystems and a phenomenon known as the prairie “edge effect”.

Viste-Sparkman: In the prairie, especially in Iowa, we have a road about every mile. And so there is always that edge right around the roads and where there’s adjacent farm fields. What that means is there’s avenues for some of the invasive plant species to come in. There’s a lot of disturbance from just vehicles going by. So in terms of the wildlife that live here, they might be more likely to get hit by a car and killed. But it just kind of disrupts the prairie so it’s not continuous.

The vast majority of Iowa’s soil is tilled and planted with corn and soybeans. To find true remnant prairies you can look to the state’s western border, north of Sioux City. That’s where you will find the Broken Kettle Grasslands, Iowa’s largest remaining tract of original prairie.

Viste-Sparkman: The remnants that are left are, a lot of them are places that were not farmed for some reasons. The prairie plants have deep roots. They help hold the soil and prevent erosion from happening and that helps keep the waterways clean. So there’s just a variety of benefits we get from prairie.

Encompassing 6,000 acres, Broken Kettle is also Iowa’s largest preserve and it contains more than 200 of the largest land mammals in North America, bison. Re-introduced to Broken Kettle in 2008, the herd now wanders through remnant Iowa prairie. It’s an image harkening back to Iowa’s landscape only centuries ago.

Bison are grass-eating herbivores, right at home in remnant prairie grasses that once covered the land of corn and soybeans.

Viste-Sparkman: Just the root systems of prairie plants go really deep into the soil so it’s able to take carbon from the air and other nutrients and put them down into the ground and then through centuries of those plants dying and decomposing they just helped build the soil and kept it in place. Really we wouldn’t have this farmland in Iowa if prairie hadn’t built the soil that we use.

Gilchrist Foundation