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Can Nature Reclaim Iowa? | Civil Eats

Iowa is a surprisingly hilly state with an unsurprising abundance of corn. In high summer, tightly packed stalks rise overhead and roll out in waves of uniformly stippled green. Every so often, a white farmhouse or a silver grain silo interrupts this monochrome view. There are also billboards—most promote varieties of seed; many condemn abortion; some warn of government land grabs.

Close-up of yellow and purple flowers.Land is political—especially so in Iowa. Today, 85 percent of Iowa’s land is used for agriculture. Farmers produce more corn, soy, and pigs here than in any other state—a dominance that has taken a heavy toll. Since 1850, nearly seven inches of nutrient-rich glacial topsoil have been lost to erosion. Growers now compensate with what the industry calls “soil enhancements”—fertilizers that drain off fields and wreak havoc on groundwater and wetland biodiversity. A steady stream of herbicides and pesticides adds to the pollution. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the water in more than half the state’s lakes and rivers is unsuitable for swimming, fishing, or drinking.

In one of the most used and abused states in the nation, a small but growing number of conservationists have advanced a radical theory: Iowa is ripe for rewilding.

“The solutions exist,” Leland Searles said. “It’s a matter of allowing the solutions to happen.” Searles is a restoration ecologist who spends his days stabilizing stream banks and his nights dreaming of Iowa before the plow. For him, the state is ground zero for the movement to return wildness to the Midwest. He helps organize a network of volunteers, called BeWild ReWild, to spread that gospel.

As a way of healing deeply scarred landscapes, however, rewilding is no easy solution. Whereas ecological restoration often works from the ground up on selective parcels to re-create how a place once appeared, rewilding approaches the problem at the top of the food web by reintroducing extirpated species, especially large carnivores, across huge areas. Often, that means setting aside vast tracts of land for nature to run its course with little human intervention. Gradually, the theory goes, roaming predators will usher in the myriad natural functions that constitute what we call nature.

Where ecological restoration works from the ground up to re-create how a place once appeared, rewilding starts at the top of the food web by reintroducing extirpated species, especially large carnivores, across huge areas.

This is not necessarily a new idea, but with so few real-world trials, the concept still seems aspirational, especially in the Midwest. Dave Foreman, the Earth First! cofounder who coined the term rewilding more than 20 years ago, saw its future in the continent’s major mountain ranges and northern boreal forests. “It is simply common sense to acknowledge that wolves are not soon going to be chasing bison across Iowa or north Texas, no matter how much we may dream,” he wrote in 2004.

Indeed, today’s most ambitious rewilding experiments are happening outside the United States. In Europe, farmers and landowners have pledged to set aside hundreds of thousands of hectares for wildlife to slow species collapse. Wolves have already been reintroduced into Germany and lynx into Spain. In South America, Conservación Patagonica is rebuilding native biodiversity on 650,000 acres of overgrazed Chilean and Argentine ranchlands.

In the United States, conservationists have succeeded in returning wolves to the Rockies and fishers to the North Cascades. Some environmentalists dream of re­introducing jaguars to the Southwest and grizzlies to California. The Great Plains are notably omitted from these schemes because the region is so unfit for the traditional rewilding model. Predators need plenty of food and lots of space, or habitat cores, and they need avenues, or corridors, to spread out and follow migrating prey. These three c’s—corridors, cores, and carnivores—underlie rewilding theory and are usually found in less-developed states like Montana, Wyoming, and Utah.

Searles is not dissuaded, nor is he preoccupied with decades-old concepts. In practice, rewilding is a mutable theory whose strategies and outcomes are entirely site dependent. BeWild ReWild’s volunteers might dream of wolves chasing bison beyond Interstate 80, but reintroducing carnivores is only part of their vision. Just as critical is convincing people to relinquish control so that nature may pursue its own course. This hands-off approach is rooted in a spiritual environmental ethos, but Searles also points out that it can be cheaper than restoration across large areas. And, by not trying to re-create a past or dictate what wildness means for an ecosystem, rewilding is a tool uniquely suited to a world undergoing rapid change toward some unknowable future.

Most of his daily work seeding native plants and making streams bend again might more closely resemble common restoration than rewilding, but it’s all part of a larger vision. “Forty-six acres at a time is a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done,” he said. Still, “restoration in strategic locations can advance what we’d like to see as far as rewilding.”

And what Searles and his fellow rewilding proponents would like to see is the wildest thing of all: a natural corridor that follows the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, teeming with apex predators, native prairie, keystone species, and human beings liberated from the limitations of anthropocentrism.

Corridors of Rewilding

Kelly Madigan lives in a century-old farmhouse surrounded by hills near the eastern banks of the Missouri River. Although she doesn’t purport to be a scientist—she’s a poet—Madigan has a unique perspective on rewilding. In November 2020, she walked the length of Iowa’s best remaining natural corridor. She completed it in about six weeks, a section at a time, often returning home to sleep in her own bed. “I’m a slow walker,” Madigan said.

The path she chose was 270 miles long, leading south through the Loess Hills, which run in a narrow band along the Missouri and contain the state’s largest remaining tracts of native prairie. In the evenings, she heard whip-poor-wills and bullfrogs. In the afternoons, she saw butterflies that exist nowhere else and counted more bugs than she’d ever seen in the tilled rows below. When grass goes to seed, it feeds mice, and mice draw snakes. “That’s something you don’t find in corn,” she said. Today, some 20,300 square miles of Iowa have been planted with nothing but corn, while native prairie has been mowed down to less than a half of 1 percent of its precolonial extent.

The hills are made from loess, or windblown glacial silt, which happens to provide an exceptionally rich, arable soil. On the eastern banks of the Missouri, it is piled several hundred feet high, but the same stuff underlays most of Iowa. This explains why so much of the state was quick to go under the plow. At one time, shortgrass and tallgrass prairie covered 45,000 square miles, or about 80 percent, of Iowa. The prairie is a complex community rooted in grass and includes 100 other species of plants, some of which reach 20 feet belowground and hold soil in place. Up above, they provide food and shelter for moths, beetles, crickets, birds, and grazers like deer, pronghorn, elk, and bison. In June, the grassy ridges are abloom with purple prairie clover, scarlet cowboy’s delight, yellow ten-petal blazing star, and white snow-on-the-mountain. Lower, in steep ravines, thick oak and hickory coalesce into a canopy as dark as a rainforest’s.

Madigan walked to immerse herself in this rare wildness, but in the process she discovered a path that other animals could follow from the expanses of South Dakota to the forests of Missouri and beyond. In the vision for a rewilded Midwest, Iowa can serve as either an avenue or a roadblock; in walking, Madigan proved that it can be the former. If linked with other wild outposts, the Loess Hills could sprout tendrils of biodiversity that thread their way to pockets of refugia all across the state.

To that end, Searles and BeWild ReWild have mapped more than 12 million acres of prime connectivity—mostly slopes too steep for farming and river valleys that frequently flood—and are advocating for their preservation. In those places, letting nature run wild would do little to affect crop yields but could slow erosion, absorb runoff fertilizer, and even buffer fields from flooding. Government easements offered through the national Wetlands Reserve Program are intended to do just this, but enrollment is low and the program has never been fully funded. Instead, many farmers choose to plant unproductive acres and claim insurance payouts on lost yields. “There can be definite gains from those ecological services, but the attitude is ‘We’ve done it this way forever, so why would we change?’” Searles explained.

To achieve this vision, BeWild ReWild will need to connect sparse cores of habitat in a state that is 97 percent privately owned. This is already happening, slowly, with private landowners taking the lead: in the hills around Madigan’s farmhouse; on 400 acres of once-productive pasture and crops outside Des Moines that an agribusinessman has let run wild; on a couple’s creekside wetland, untouched for 37 years, that now harbors five beaver dams.

Searles and BeWild ReWild have mapped more than 12 million acres of prime connectivity—mostly slopes too steep for farming and river valleys that frequently flood—and are advocating for their preservation.

To bring fellow Iowans on board, BeWild ReWild has presented its vision at local events and to organizations like the Iowa Environmental Council. Its volunteers have convened writers’ workshops, held exhibitions of related work by Native artists, produced short films, and written op-eds for local papers—all in the hope of capturing the imagination of landowners like Madigan, who is returning her generations-old farm to original prairie. Her walk helped her discover how her home fits into the bigger picture. Now, she leads group hikes through the hills to share what she learned and to raise awareness about the threat of development and loess mining. (Bulldozers cart away tons of the coveted soil from a quarry near her home for building foundations.)

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