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IOWA: A landscape highly modified over time

October 15, 2011
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

PRAIRIES are grasslands, tiny remnants of a once vast 'sea of grass' that stretched across the entire mid section of America. For Iowa, a land with a deep and productive soil base, prairies helped to create the rich topsoil in the first place, are now relegated to less than one-tenth of one percent of our 55,875 square miles of land. Scientists know that it took about one century to make each new inch of topsoil.

What changed? A good read of Iowa history, both natural and culturally, tells the story of a land rich in resources. Iowa was covered by tall grass prairies over 85 percent of its surface for many thousands of years. It was a landscape that changed slowly and irregularly after the last glaciation, the Wisconsinan episode. During subsequent thousands of years, the land changed from open barren tundra to spruce forests, and then to a mix of deciduous trees and finally to a land dominated by tall grass prairies.

Into this setting in the early to mid 1800s came settlers. They were largely here to explore and exploit the land to make a living. The plow was a crude implement at the time. However, when a team of horses or oxen pulled a one-bottom plow and broke the prairie sod, a rich black topsoil was exposed. It grew crops really well. Soon after, a man named John Deere made improvements to the moldboard plow with special steel that scoured the prairie soil more easily. That special steel tended to let the soil peel off rather than stick. The result was inevitable ... a lot more acres of prairie sod were broken. The rush was on. Iowa would become the most man-altered landscape in the country. That is why we have less than one-tenth of one percent of our native prairie landscapes remaining. Now that they are rare, they are also precious reminders of our history.

Article Photos

A bumble bee takes advantage of nectar from fall prairie flowers this past week. Time is running short for this bee as it prepares for a long underground nap to survive the coming winter. A stroll through the Marietta Sand Prairie at this time of year, with or without a camera, is worth your time. Later this fall, a stroll through the prairie with a shotgun and a good dog may bring a pheasant or two into view. Prairies are neat places.  We are fortunate that long range planning by the Marshall County Conservation Board enabled the protection and renovation of native grasses and forbs in the Sand Prairie.

America does have other native prairie tracts, some in large acreages. The reasons they survive are still driven by climate to a large degree. Subsoil and subsurface rock play a large roll also. The Flint Hills of Kansas is one example, a 10,894 acre preserve in the central part of that state. The Flint Hills area 250 million years ago was part of a vast inland sea. Many layers of limestone deposits resulted during this long geological time frame. When the oceans receded, erosion was ready to rework the surface. Softer shales went away first. Harder limestone and flint shelves remained. The Flint Hills were too rocky to plow, a discovery made by the pioneers to this area. Allowing native tall grass prairie to grow was the best thing for this land. Allow cattle to graze on the prairie but do not plow this land had a very practical reason, it couldn't be plowed.

For Iowa, the tiny and small diverse farms of the late 1800s and early 1900s were an entirely different setting than we know today. Small farms had to be as self sufficient as possible. That meant crops were grown primarily to support livestock; dairy, beef, poultry, swine. All crop fields were small, very small by today's standards. Permanent pastures were also a part of the landscape. Lots of fences separated cropland from pastures. Fence rows created long corridors of weedy environments. Efficiency of harvest equipment was poor. Waste grain fed a lot of critters.

Wildlife that could adapt to man's landscape alterations did so. Biologists call them "generalists" in the sense that they could and did adjust to new forces around them. Some wildlife species were much more specific in their habitat needs. They could not adjust to intense farmed landscapes. While they may exist today in other locations, adapting to an intense agricultural transformation was not for them.

Imagine for a moment a series of aerial photos of the same segment of Iowa landscape. What will become quite apparent is subtle and constant change. Look at the typical farms in that segment from the late 1800s. Note the small field sizes and grasslands. Now watch that same land through each decade. Compare the farms and land use pattern shifts from 1900, 1910, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90s right up to the present time. Did you notice how habitat changed? Did you see fence rows disappear? Did you see field sizes grow bigger and bigger? Did you see weedy fence lines and permanent grasslands/pasture disappear? Did you see cropland weed control go from only manual cultivation to intense chemical control?

If you were a pheasant, tell me which landscape of the past suited your needs best? It would not be the current situation. It would be the 1940s 50s and 60s. Those times are past. Wishing for pheasant numbers reminiscent of 60 years ago in today's environment is not going to happen. Too much has changed to the way we do business today. Turning the clock back is a direct clash with the truth of economics in the modern world. That is the way it is, like it or not.

Pheasants can adapt and adjust to many things. Weather that is relatively mild in the winter will help. Relatively warm dry spring weather going into nesting times will help. Having sufficient grassland habitat to survive, nest and rest is another help. Having food supplies with abundant insects and weed seeds would be nice. What pheasants are finding however is a one-two knockout punch of adverse weather, fewer long term grasslands to call home and modern farming practices that leave little to live on.

So the next time a coffee shop "biologist" talks just to hear themselves talk and blames too few pheasants on too many red-tail hawks, tell them to re-read the above story. The reality is that there are no simple solutions to complex problems, for pheasants or any other wildlife we treasure for its own sake. Remember these words and think about the commitment it takes in time and money to put long term conservation practices in place on the land. Think about it as you saunter through the Sand Prairie this fall while watching bumble bees on flowers or hearing the cackle of exploding rooster pheasants under foot.


D-1 is a Bald Eagle, one of three that hatched from the nest at Decorah this spring. Its GPS tag is allowing researchers and common folk watch its travels. When it first left the nest, it stayed close to home. Then it ventured north to Wisconsin's Chippewa Falls. In August and September, it had flown north to the Duluth, Minn. vicinity. Now she is hanging out at Yellow Lake, Minn. south of Duluth. It will be interesting to see her movements and wanderings later this fall and winter. Go D-1!


Today is the opener for Iowa's early muzzleloader deer season. The end date is Oct. 23. Iowa will have about 7,500 early muzzleloader hunters afield. In 2010, they took about 4,100 deer from the population. Similar numbers or slightly lower tallies are expected for 2011 due to fewer deer overall. But the numbers will tell the story later this year. Good luck and be safe.


Fall Color Nature Sketching has been rescheduled for Tuesday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Grimes Farm & Conservation Center, 2359 233rd Street. Capture the beauty of fall colors as a local artist shares simple sketching techniques. Bring colored pencils or watercolor pencils, small sketch pad and a lawn chair. Pre-register by calling 752-5490.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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