Mauren: Thinking about the state we lost


Courtesy of Stuart Brown via Flickr

Columnist Jacob Mauren laments the loss of Iowa’s native wildlife and prairies. 

Jacob Mauren

During the worst of the pandemic, I found myself spending excess time picking up a new hobby. Gardening. When you have extra time, few people to see and fewer places to go, it fits well. But while I scoured the web for extra tips and tutorials, I inevitably began to learn about general ecology and found myself thinking about the Iowa that we no longer have.

Nature is the greatest puzzle that has ever been assembled. All the pieces fit perfectly. Whether you are looking at water cycles, how predators and prey balance each other or the way prairies are made to interact with wildfires, it’s impressive. 

But we sadly have few opportunities to see this puzzle in our modern lives. Yes, we may occasionally see a deer cross a road, but the Iowa that formed in this grand balancing act is barely around anymore.  

Iowa used to be covered almost completely in tallgrass prairie. Across the state’s over fifty-two thousand square miles was a blanket of green grass and vibrant wildflowers. Lining many creeks and rivers were oak savannas that were able to hold out against the many wildfires that commonly swept the landscape. 

Among this prairie roamed herds giant of bison and eastern elk. They grazed on the tallgrass while trying to fend off grey wolves. And in the middle of all of it were the native American communities living off the land. Mainly the Ioway, Dakota Sioux and Illini tribes. It was just another stage for nature’s balancing act to present itself. 

This all changed when European settlers came and changed the landscape. Starting in the 1850s, the prairie and savanna were cleared plot by plot to make way for farmland. After 80 years, just 0.1% of Iowa’s prairie was left. At the same time that the grey wolf and American bison were almost hunted into extinction, the Eastern elk was lost forever. 

Whether you believe the native ecosystem was shaped by evolution or placed here by a divine being, it is sad to think that it is likely gone forever. Without a drastic shift in land use, Iowa’s prairies will stay constrained to roadside ditches and the occasional state parks. And it’s why I find myself missing a state that I have never seen.