EMMET COUNTY, IOWA – At roughly 200 acres, Anderson Prairie State Preserve is one of the largest remnant prairies in Iowa and with more than 220 different plant species it is one of the most diverse places in the state.
The state preserve is part of Anderson Prairie Wildlife Area, covering 900 acres of upland, timber, oak savanna, bottomland, remnant and restored prairie sitting in northwest Emmet County.
“Anderson Prairie is a very unique place because of its diversity of habitat,” said Rob Patterson, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Prairie Lakes Wildlife Unit that is responsible for managing the area.
With a portion of the 200-acre preserve never having seen a plow, it serves as a window into Iowa’s past. “This is what Iowa once looked like,” Patterson said while standing in the prairie emerging from this year’s late spring prescribed fire.
Keeping the rarest landscape in the state looking this way requires hands-on management. The preserve is divided into eight burn units and fire is used on at least one unit each year during the late spring to keep the diverse prairie plant species from being overtaken by brome grass. By burning late, it gives the prairie a chance to come through.
Walking through the preserve on this August morning, its uniqueness begins to show. Silverleaf scurf-pea, a species only found on remnant prairies, is visible, along with the just-starting-to-bloom rough blazing star, an important native prairie flower for pollinators and sought out by monarchs.
Patterson points out showy tick trefoil, purple coneflower, white wild indigo, thimbleweed, and the less common green milkweed. Anderson Preserve is also home to the federally threatened western prairie fringed orchid and prairie bush clover. These prairie flowers are important to regal fritillaries, a butterfly species of special concern that has been found here.
Anderson Prairie also serves as an outdoor classroom, having hosted students from Iowa Lakes Community College for years and currently provides hands on experience for two Environmental Studies 1 labs.
The first lab has students stretching 10 meter transects on bottomland, midslope, and ridge habitats to identify prairie plant species in each area and then extrapolate the data across the entire tract for estimating populations.
Students later visit during a bird niche lab where they observe grassland bird species and record them for understanding bird adaptations and diets related to the environments where they were encountered.
The high-quality prairie and oak savanna is home to clay colored sparrows, American bittern, redheaded and pileated woodpeckers and nine species of warblers. Pheasants, partridge and turkeys call it home. Short-eared owls use the preserve. Upland sandpipers nested here and northern harriers may be nesting here too.
“The diversity in habitat supports diversity in opportunity out here, too,” Patterson said.
Hunting, hiking, birding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and paddling and fishing on the West Fork of the Des Moines River, which flows through Anderson Prairie.
The popular county managed canoe access to the north provides river access where paddlers can experience the area from the view of the river. It’s an easy float from the access to the city park on Hwy. 9 in Estherville. This stretch of the river is known to offer good fishing for walleyes and channel catfish.