Plants and Animals of Iowa
Iowa is located between different climates and habitats. To the east and south of Iowa are humid, deciduous forests. North of Iowa are cold, coniferous forests. To the west are dry plains and deserts. Being in the middle, Iowa has plants and animals from each of these areas.
Some plants and animals can be found almost everywhere in Iowa. These are called generalists. Raccoons and poison ivy are good examples of generalists. Some plants and animals are found only in certain habitats. These are called specialists. The Pleistocene snail is found only in small areas of northeast Iowa. Skeleton plant is found only in the loess hills. These are examples of specialists.
Iowa’s resident plants and animals adapt to big changes in seasonal conditions. They can survive hot, humid summers and bitterly cold winters. When the European settlers arrived, they changed the habitats and death rates. Plants and animals that are generalists have adapted to these changes. They continue to flourish. Specialist species have suffered from the changes. Many are having trouble surviving. Some plants and animals could not adapt at all. They are now extirpated (removed from the state) or extinct.
After Joseph Street traveled through Iowa in 1833, he wrote: “I had never rode through a country so full of game.” In all the different habitats, Iowa was covered with animals and the plants on which they depended.
Silver maples, cottonwoods, gooseberry and wild grape are common plants in bottomland forests along rivers. Oak and hickory forests are found higher. These plants provided food and shelter for beaver, deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, ovenbirds, Carolina parakeets and more. Cougars and bears used the rivers as their highways, eating whatever they caught.
Iowa’s prairies were home to an unknown variety of plants and animals. Many prairie flowers were used by Native Americans for medicines and dyes. Elk and bison grazed on prairie grasses. Prairie chickens, grouse and bobolinks nested in prairies. Badgers and plains pocket gophers burrowed into the rich soil. Wolves roamed the prairies looking for their next meal.
The Des Moines River valley has been a natural path for plant and animal migration. Sycamore trees moved into Iowa about 100 years ago. They had slowly migrated up from the southeastern United States. Ducks, geese, sandhill cranes and pelicans have long used the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers as their flyways. The shallow prairie marshes in north central Iowa provided a rest stop or nesting area for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Cattails were an important plant for food and fiber.
The loess hills of western Iowa are much like the dry southwestern parts of the United States. Yucca and skeleton plants are common. Spadefoot toads and rattlesnakes hide in the loose soil. Its unique soil is not easily farmed. Its climate is not as friendly for big game animals. These factors helped make the hills a safe place for native plants and animals.
Native Americans, explorers and settlers relied on native plants and animals for food, medicines and shelter. Bison, elk, beaver, otter and mink were hunted for their meat or furs. Turkeys, prairie chickens, grouse and passenger pigeons were also hunted. A bounty was placed on wolves, cougars and bears. At first, the killing of animals was limited to what hunters could use. Then the railroad companies started to cross Iowa in the 1860s. Hunters made extra money by providing fresh meat for the workers. When the railroads were complete, the trains carried extra meat and furs to buyers in eastern cities.
At the same time, farmers were busy cutting down forests, plowing the prairie and draining wetlands. They planted non-native crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. Most animals rely on certain types of plants as their food source. Whether they were hunted or not, when the food plants were gone, so were the animals. By 1900 buffalo, elk, deer, beaver, otters, wolves, cougars, bears, passenger pigeons, bobcats, turkeys and many other animals could no longer be found in Iowa.
Settlers didn’t just drive away native plants and animals. They also introduced new plants and animals. Some were introduced on purpose, others by accident. Settlers brought multi-flora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, dandelions and white mulberry trees to make Iowa feel more like "home." These plants do not have any native animals or diseases to control their spread. Now they are considered weeds. Rock doves (pigeons) were once popular pets. Now they are considered pests.
After turkey, prairie chicken and grouse populations were nearly wiped out, William Benton started raising Chinese ringneck pheasants in Cedar Falls. Around 1900 a windstorm blew down the fences. Two thousand pheasants escaped. Now they are the most popular game bird in Iowa.
This trend continues even in current times. Gypsy moths and zebra mussels have all been introduced since 1970. Each one threatens to take over habitat and food sources needed by native animals.
By the early 1900s, many people across the country realized they had made some mistakes. Native plants and animals were not unlimited resources to be taken for granted. People started supporting wildlife management. Laws were passed so game animals could only be hunted during certain times of the year. Limits were set on the number of animals that could be killed. Certain pieces of land were set aside as parks and preserves, safe from development. Tax money collected on hunting and fishing equipment was set aside to pay for these programs.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is the agency responsible for most of the wildlife management across Iowa. County conservation boards, federal agencies, volunteer groups and private organizations also help. The DNR keeps track of plant and animal populations through June nesting bird surveys, field walks, spring frog song surveys, August roadside wildlife counts, hunting counts, winter bird feeder surveys and other programs. They use the results to develop programs to help Iowa’s wildlife. They purchase land for habitat restoration. They get rid of alien species and plant native ones. They buy or trade wildlife with other states to encourage more diversity in Iowa.
Through hard work, some wildlife that disappeared over 100 years ago can now be seen again. In 1900 there were no white-tailed deer or wild turkeys in Iowa. Now hunters come from across the nation to pay for the right to hunt a big buck or gobbler. Trumpeter swans, river otters, peregrine falcons and prairie chickens can be seen in increasing numbers. Following these successful reintroductions, some animals are coming back to Iowa on their own. Bobcats sightings are becoming more common. Occasionally an elk, mountain lion or even a bear wanders into the state.
Iowa is considered the most altered state in the nation. But many Iowans are working to protect what remains and recreate spaces for native plants and animals.
- Dinsmore, James J. A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa. Iowa City, Iowa; University of Iowa Press, 1994.
- Iowa Association of Naturalists. Iowa Habitat Loss and Disappearing Wildlife: Iowa Environmental Issues Series. Ames, Iowa: ISU Extension Service, 1998.
- An Iowa Supplement to Project WILD Aquatic. Aquatic Education Program, Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Revised, 2002.
- An Iowa Supplement to Project Wild. Wildlife Bureau, Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Revised, 2002.
- An Iowa Supplement to Project Learning Tree K - 8. Forestry Bureau, Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Revised, 2002.
- Land Between Two Rivers: A Guide for Teachers. Johnston, Iowa: Iowa Public Television, 1986.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Cindy Blobaum.