What It Means to Be Native

What It Means to Be Native

Bringing Nature Home, published in 2007, is the first book by Dr. Douglas Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. The title says it all. Dr. Tallamy argues that we can make important contributions to the conservation of native wildlife by what we choose to plant in our backyards. Much of the world’s landscapes are dominated by humans, leaving little space for Nature. Iowa has lost over 99% of its native prairies, 92% of its native wetlands, and 75% of its native forests. Where Nature still exists, non-native and invasive species wreak havoc by taking up space and disrupting natural ecosystem processes that support native species.

More than 50,000 foreign plant and animal species have established in the United States. About one in seven is invasive. Damage and control costs are estimated at more than $138 billion annually (USDA/APHIS, 2001). Native species are under siege everywhere. So where is Nature to go? Dr. Tallamy invites us to make a place for Nature in our backyards and gardens. By doing so, we will help make a brighter future for Nature.

What does “native” mean?

Dr. Tallamy has published nearly 100 research papers on insect ecology, behavior and physiology. His work shows that insects prefer to eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history. If you add plants to your yard to benefit native wildlife, native plants should be your first choice. The evolutionary connection between them is a powerful concept. So what does it mean to be native? All species have a natural biogeographic range, a map that shows where the species exists under natural conditions. This is where the species is indigenous and native, where natural population processes and migration have permitted the species to live, and where it has adapted to the environment.

What is “local ecotype”?

The term local ecotype is often used in discussions about what is native. However local ecotype does not mean the same as native. It addresses a different population concept. If a species’ biogeographic range is very large, like several hundred miles in diameter, then it is possible that ecotypes are present. An ecotype is a genetically-defined subpopulation within a species’ range. They form through evolution. Consider the common grassland species big bluestem. Its range includes 45 states and provinces in North America. It is likely there is a Texas-ecotype, an Ohio-ecotype, a North Dakota-ecotype, and others. Because ecotypes are a result of evolution, they are the version of a species that is best-adapted to the environment where they exist. The challenge is what constitutes a “local” ecotype, meaning the ecotype best adapted to your location. Not nearly enough research has been done to answer all the questions we have, but we do know using a “local” ecotype is important in restoration.

The most important step in ecological restoration, no matter the size, is choosing what to plant and acquiring the right seeds. It can be intimidating. So here is a three-step guide to help:

1) Select species native to your place; usually your county works well. This is very important and often difficult. Accurate information can be hard to find, in part because many species have been moved outside their range by humans. Those troublesome invasive species we battle were initially introduced to a place beyond their native range. If you do the same, you could be contributing to the massive problem that invasive species present.

2) From the list of native species, select those that are correct for the environment where they will be planted. Soil moisture and light level are important factors. Consider the soil type, topography and local geomorphology. Is the planting site on a slope? Is it in a swale or on a ridge? Is the soil sandy? Or, will you be planting seeds in pots on your patio? Will the species in the pots need frequent watering, or perhaps your patio is very shaded?

3) Steps 1 and 2 will result in a list of species that are suitable to plant. Obtain seeds of those species that are “local” ecotype, which means from a supplier within 100 to 150 miles of your planting site. How will you know the seed they are selling is local? You don’t know for sure unless you ask questions. If the seed is Iowa yellow tag, then it is certified to originate from an Iowa prairie. Therefore, if you use yellow tag seed from a grower/supplier located within 150 miles, it is very likely you have local ecotype seed.

This hypothetical example may help. Suppose you live in Boone County and discover that Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop or blue giant hyssop) is great for pollinators because it’s a favorite nectar plant of many native bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Anise hyssop is also widely available commercially as an ornamental plant. At least eight cultivars have been developed, which means it has been genetically altered into forms that are more pleasing to humans. It is native to western South Dakota, North Dakota, parts of Minnesota, and northwest Wisconsin. Northern Iowa is the southern limit to its range (see maps below). Although listed as an endangered species in Iowa, its true status is more likely extirpated. There are probably many cultivar plants bought from nursery stock growing in gardens throughout Iowa, but they do not have the same genetic makeup and characteristics as the native plants. For someone living in Boone County, anise hyssop fails to pass the first step outlined above: it is not native to Boone county. But there is an alternative option, one that is much better ecologically. You can plant Agastache nepetoides (yellow hyssop), a close relative of anise hyssop and equally as valuable for insects. It will do well in semi-shaded moist sites and is native to Boone County and most of Iowa.

BONAP distribution maps for anise hyssop (left) and yellow hyssop (right). Dark green means the species in question is native to the state. Light green means the species is present in that county and not rare,  while yellow indicates that the plant species is present but rare.

Native plants are the best choice for supporting native biodiversity. They are better suited to Iowa’s environments than non-native species, they are easier to establish and maintain, and they are just as attractive and more enjoyable than non-native species. They belong, ecologically, to any place where they are native. But just because a plant species is native to Iowa, that does not mean it is necessarily native to your county. The majority of Iowa’s native plant species are only native to a subset of Iowa counties. That is what makes Iowa’s botanical diversity uniquely interesting!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Has Had a Busy and Productive 2023

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Has Had a Busy and Productive 2023

Hello and Happy 2023,

Prairie Rivers of Iowa has had a busy and productive 2023 in Iowa, working on a variety of important initiatives related to creating a healthier natural environment and preserving the rich cultural heritage of Iowa.   As we end this year, we have touched kids, families, landowners, historic homeowners and business owners, communities, natural resource professionals, like-minded not-for-profits and oversaw a national prairie conference in Iowa.

Here’s a summary of some of the key accomplishments and initiatives this year:

EDUCATIONAL VIDEO SERIES – We created a weekly video series for YouTube and Instagram The Clean Water Act: 50 Years, 50 Facts. We produced 45 short videos filmed at dozens of locations (including knee deep in a marsh) and featuring 5 music parodies.  The educational videos covered various aspects of water conservation, law and policy.

Water Testing Ioway Creek Near Stratford in Hamitlon County

MONTHLY STREAM MONITORINGConducted monthly monitoring of at least 15 streams, providing updates in the Prairie Rivers monthly newsletter.  Additionally, coordinated volunteer “snapshots” with neighboring counties and supported school groups interested in water monitoring. Additionally, we published a 65-page report analyzing water quality data, including a novel way of looking at the data.

SECURED A NATIONAL FOUNDATION GRANT – This grant assists us in building a network for interpreting water quality monitoring data.  Seven partners joined Prairie Rivers to focus at sharing best practices, looking for tools to monitor E. coli in our streams, providing a monthly opportunity to express their concerns and planning for an Iowa Water Summit in 2024.

Ioway Creek Cleanup

TWO TRASH CLEANUPS — (1) May 2023 — Cleaned Ioway Creek by canoe, S. Grand to S. 16th St (Ames), 40 participants.  The trash collected weighed 3,020 pounds and included 20 tires and three rims. Partners included: Story County Conservation, Skunk River Paddlers, the City of Ames, Outdoor Alliance of Story County.  (2) August 14, 2023 – Cleaned a tributary of Ioway Creek in Stuart Smith Park (Ames), on foot, nine volunteers, 350 pounds of trash removed.  Partners included Iowa Rivers Revival, Green Iowa AmeriCorps and the City of Ames.

POLLINATOR CONSERVATION Launched a 10-year plan involving over 40 persons serving on a committee to support pollinator conservation.  This plan is aimed at conserving pollinators and their habitats, which are crucial for the environment.  You can see the plan at www.prrcd.org.

Monarch Magic Family Fun Event on September 9th, 2023

MONARCH MAGIC Held the first Monarch tagging event in September, where over 300 kids, their families, and others learned about pollinators and tagged 146 Monarchs.  We had 10 sponsors and partners at Ada Hayden Heritage Park and plan to do it again in 2024.

HISTORIC RESOURCE PRESERVATIONReceived a grant from Iowa Cultural Affairs and successfully surveyed 319 historic listings on the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.  In 2024, we will present the findings to elected officials and other interested persons in the 43 communities along the Byway to inform and develop a plan for the restoration and preservation of these important Iowa heritage properties.

BYWAY COORDINATOR AND PROJECTS – Hired a new Byway Coordinator, Jeanie Hau, who is actively working to support our Byway projects.  Prairie Rivers signed a new contract with the Iowa DOT to support work on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway extending our efforts to preserve Iowa’s heritage.  This Byway begins on Highway 30, Montour turnoff, and travels through the Amana Colonies for a total of 77 miles.

TRAVELING EXHIBITThe Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway traveling exhibit called The Promise Road:  How the Lincoln Highway Changed America has been displayed at various locations, allowing visitors to learn about the rich history of this historic road.  It’s available for display in museums, libraries, and other community spaces.  So far the exhibit has traveled to Jefferson, Grand Junction, State Center, Nevada, Linn County Historical Society: The History Center, Cedar Rapids History Museum, Nevada Library, Marion Public Library, Carroll Public Library, Harrison County Welcome Center, and currently at the Council Bluffs Public Library.

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Traveling Exhibit

We cannot do this work without your support!

Today, we are asking you as a supporter to make an end-of-year gift of $50.00 to Prairie Rivers of Iowa.  Your support shows us to keep up the good work!   You can make a gift here online or by going to our donation page for additional options. We know that as good stewards of the land, you see how important this work is today.

It is so important for a not-for-profit to receive gifts from individuals. Hearing from you encourages and supports our very difficult work in support of the natural and cultural resources in Iowa.
Thank you!

Board of Directors
Reed Riskedahl, President
Mark Rasmussen, Treasurer
Doug Cooper, Secretary
Erv Klaas
Bob Ausberger
Chuck Stewart
Rick Dietz
Jim Richardson
Christopher Barber

Mike Kellner, Marketing and Public Relations
Dan Haug, Water Quality Specialist
Jessica Butters, Pollinator Conservation Specialist
Jeanie Hau, Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway & Iowa Valley Scenic Byway Coordinator
Carman Rosburg, Office Manager
Daniel Huber, Technology
Shellie Orngard, Historic Properties Consultant

One-Time Donate to Prairie Rivers of Iowa
New Pollinator Conservation Specialist Jessica Butters Joins PRI Staff

New Pollinator Conservation Specialist Jessica Butters Joins PRI Staff

Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s new Pollinator Conservation Specialist Jessica Butters’s background includes extensive knowledge about Iowa’s ecosystems and native bee conservation. She’s a graduate of Kansas State University (KSU) with a Master’s of Science in Entomology and recently completed work as a research assistant organizing and analyzing a large dataset concerning native bee presence in soybean in fields.

“We are thrilled to have her join our staff and look forward to some significant contributions towards pollinator and native plant habitat creation, restoration and education throughout Iowa,” says Executive Director Penny Brown Huber.

Jessica has a history of collaboration that will serve her well in this new position. As a part of the team at Kansas State, she has co-authored publications on topics ranging from Providing for Pollinators: Conserving and Integrating Natural Habitats to Native Flowering Border Crops Attract High Pollinator Abundance and Diversity. At KSU she managed two projects that gave her and others a greater understanding of native plant and insect interactions, and landowner viewpoints towards conservation efforts and practices.

Connecting with the public is an area of expertise Jessica honed while serving as an insect zoo tour guide at KSU and as a private tutor where she was able to synthesize scientific information into something simple, fun, and informational to school children and diverse audiences. Central Iowa audiences will get their first taste of her expertise during the Ames Public Library’s Birds, Bees and Pollinators EcoChat on April 28.

Besides being a great presenter, Jessica’s scientific skills are impressive as well. She is just as comfortable while conducting research and analyzing data, creating maps using ArcGIS and R, identifying native pollinators and plants, talking about sustainable agriculture or creating the perfect bee house. They are skillsets that are critical when considering the challenges pollinators currently face in Iowa and beyond.

Please welcome Jessica to the Prairie Rivers team, and “bee” sure to reach out, say hello, and call upon her expertise when you need assistance with your next pollinator garden, native prairie restoration, or educational event.

During the application process, Jessica related, “I believe my research experience, passion for public relations, and solid bee and Iowa ecology background, blend perfectly together for this position.” We could not agree more!

Monarch in Native Prairie
Bumble Bee
Kids On the Byway Program
The State of Pollinators in Iowa

The State of Pollinators in Iowa

Special Note: This blog post is based on a presentation made by former PRI Watersheds and Wildlife Coordinator David Stein. Editing and Design by PRI PR & Marketing Coordinator Mike Kellner.

Pollinators in Iowa are disappearing at an alarming rate due to climate change, disappearing habitat, pesticide use, and disease.

Prior to European settlement, about 85% of Iowa was covered with prairies, grasslands, wetlands, and forests. Now, less than one-tenth of a percent of Iowa’s original prairies are left while the rest of its land has been plowed for cultivation, cleared for development, or otherwise altered creating a lack of habitat, food, and water for pollinators in our state. In a sense, Iowa’s once-lush landscape has become a virtual desert, where more often than not, there is no food or water for pollinators sometimes as far as the eye can see.

Pre-Settlement Pollinator Habitat in Iowa
Pre-Settlement Pollinator and Wildlife Habitat in Iowa
Former land cover can give us insight into how to best currently manage and restore pollinator and wildlife habitat
Post Settlement Pollinator Habitat in Iowa
Post Settlement Pollinator and Wildlife Habitat in Iowa
Wetlands, forests, and most significantly, prairies and grasslands have all seen reductions resulting in habitat loss.  
Just Some of the Historic Trends in Pollinator Decline in Iowa

  •  Skippers —47 Species
  • Hairstreaks and Blues — 25 Species
  • White, Yellow, Orange Butterflies — 11 Species
  • Brush-Footed Butterflies — 38 Species
  • Swallowtails — 6 Species
  • Metalmark Butterflies —1 Species

  • Skippers 27 Species — (43% loss)
  • Hairstreaks and Blues — 14 Species (44% loss)
  • White, Yellow, Orange Butterflies — 6 Species (45% loss)
  • Brush-Footed Butterflies — 25 Species (35% loss)
  • Swallowtails — 4 Species (33% loss)
  • Metalmark Butterflies —  0 Species (100% loss; not seen since 1930)
Some Species You Will Never See Again
Other Threatened and Endangered Butterflies
Acadian Hairstreak
Aphrodite Fritillary
Banded Hairstreak
Black Dash
Broad Winged Skipper
Byssus Skipper
Columbine Duskywing
Common Ringlet
Common Roadside Skipper
Compton Tortoiseshell
Crossline Skipper
Dakota Skipper
Dion Skipper
Dreamy Duskywing

Dusted Skipper
Edward’s Hairstreak
Eyed Brown
Gorgone Checkerspot
Gray Comma
Hayhurst’s Scallopwing
Henry’s Elfin
Hickory Hairstreak
Horace’s Duskywing
Juniper Hairstreak
Juvenal’s Duskywing
Leonard’s Skipper
Little Glassywing

Long Dash
Meadow Fritillary
Melissa Blue
Mottled Duskywing
Mulberry Wing
Northern Broken Dash
Northern Pearly Eye
Ottoe Skipper
Ozark Baltimore
Pawnee Skipper
Pepper & Salt Skipper
Pipevine Swallowtail
Poweshiek Skipperling


Purplish Copper
Reakirt’s Blue
Regal Fritillary
Silver Bordered Fritillary
Silvery Blue
Sleepy Duskywing
Southern Cloudywing
Striped Hairstreak
Swamp Metalmark
Swarthy Skipper
Two Spotted Skipper
White M Hairstreak
Wild Indigo Duskywing
Zabulon Skipper
Zebra Swallowtail
Threatened and Endangered Bumble Bees — They Are Still Here, Let’s Work Together to Protect Them While We Still Can!
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

American Bumble Bee

American Bumble Bee

Plains Bumble Bee

Plains Bumble Bee

Yellow Bumble Bee

Yellow Bumble Bee

Steps We All Can Take to Reduce Pollinator Decline
• Learn from the past
• Plant a lot of flowers of different species
• Use native plants
• Reintroduce rare plants
• Don’t waste space on turf
• Remove invasive species
• Diversify agriculture
• Treat ecosystems as vital infrastructure
Native Plant Diversity
Diversified Agriculture
Visit with our Watersheds and Wildlife program to learn more about helping pollinators by planting the right native host plants for for food and nectar, using alternative lawn seed mixes, best practices for nesting and much more!