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Prairie center thrives in spring

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 11:17 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 5, 2013 11:56 a.m. CDT
(Matthew Nosco/Daily News)
Visitors to Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge turn into the buffalo enclosure. The bison herd, numbering more than 70 head, has free range of a 700-acre habitat.

Spring has arrived, and that means renewed growth for the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, both of the prairie and of their patrons.

Now that warmer weather is upon us, the refuge expects to see a sharp increase in the number of visitors coming through its doors. The learning center accommodates more than 8,000 school children each year and many more general visitors, as well, according to Wildlife Refuge Manager Christy Smith.

During the spring season, the refuge will often host several schools each week, depending on their schedules. They provide a number of activities for the children, ranging from seed planting and nature hikes to puppet shows and movie screenings.

One particular service they offer is especially rare in today’s technologically engaged world. While kids might be focused on their cell phones, tablets and other gadgets in the outside world, the refuge staff tries to counteract that.

“Our biggest goal with the kids is to get them to stop, listen and observe,” Smith said. “We want them to look around and see what is going on.”

The refuge attempts this with a number of interactive activities such as scavenger hunts and bird-watching tours.

Smith and the rest of the staff are looking forward to the increased flow of visitors.

“The sun is out, and people are finally getting the urge to get out of the cabin,” she joked. “We’re definitely ready… We’ve been out working on our Buzzerhead area where we are doing tree clearing and savannah prairie restoration.”

The wildlife refuge offers a number of attractions to visitors. They have the learning center which houses a variety of prairie-themed exhibits as well as several video tours and a movie screening room. There is a two-mile walking trail that leads participants along the rolling hills of the prairie and sometimes leads to rare view of the buffalo as it runs alongside their enclosure.

The refuge has two drive-through portions, one of which takes the visitor back along the more than 6,000-acre expanse of reserve habitat. People come from far away to visit the well-known second drive, passing through the buffalo enclosure, where the buffalo will sometimes meander up to the roadway and give motorists a close view.

No matter which feature people visit the refuge for, it has a lot to offer.

Jim Shriver, Pella resident, visited the learning center with his daughter Penny during her spring vacation.

“It’s good for us to be thinking of conservation,” Shriver said. “She actually picked to come here, which is great since school is out. She’s been here for classes before and loves it.”