PRAIRIE CITY — More than 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark embarked on a journey through the unknown of what would one day come to be known as the Midwestern United States. While they journeyed across the continent, they encountered magnificent animals, beautiful landscapes and new agriculture. One of the most shocking encounters for the expeditioners was the millions of bison that roamed throughout the great plains.
Before Europeans and their ancestors started settling in the western U.S., approximately 50 million bison roamed the country. Unfortunately, those numbers quickly dwindled to less than one million after the settlers arrived. Today, the small number that remain are found in sanctuaries such as the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, and the giant mammals are now celebrated.
The refuge was established nearly 30 years ago in 1990, with the help of its namesake, former U.S. Congressman Neal Smith. While the bison are not the only purpose for the refuge, they are one of the main attractions for visitors. On Saturday, the refuge held its annual Bison Day celebration to show appreciation and raise awareness of the majestic creatures.
Dozens of organizations such as the Jasper County Conservation, the Iowa Archaeological Society and People Pollinators, came out to help celebrate. Each organization set up booths with games, food, and information about preservation. Some of the activities included bracelet making, archery, bison-themed crafts, and “horn” ring toss. One Refuge staff member, Kieran Bowe, also lead a discussion all about bison.
“Everybody (who works at Neal Smith) is extremely passionate about the refuge,” Bowe said. “We all took it upon ourselves to reestablish the wildlife here.”
Neal Smith is currently home to 57 bison — 45 adults and 12 calves. Bowe said each fall, the calves are rounded up, tested and micro-chipped in order to keep track of their health and activity. The refuge also employs a full-time biologist who keeps track of not only the bison but the entirety of the more than 8,000-acre park. During Bison Day, biologist Karen Viste-Sparkman, sat at her own booth and answered the questions of Bison Day attendees.
For more information about the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, call 515-994-3400, visit fws.gov/refuge/neal_smith/ or find Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook.