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Before Europeans began settling in Iowa, our landscape looked much different – not just the vista views of prairies and oak savannas, but the wildlife that called it home. You’d be hard pressed to find many elk, bison, black bear or lynx in the Iowa wild today, but not that long ago, they roamed our state.
In most cases, the loss of habitat due to settlement, combined with overhunting and a lack of hunting laws and seasons, pushed them out of Iowa and caused populations here to disappear. It’s not totally unheard of to see a bear wandering in Iowa today – after all, they don’t recognize political boundaries like state lines – but they’re unlikely to stick around.
Here are four animals that you may not have known were at one time native to Iowa:
Commonly called buffalo, bison lived throughout Iowa, with the largest groups roaming the northwest and north central parts of the state. As settlement moved west, bison numbers fell as Iowa’s new residents hunted the animal for its plentiful meat and its useful hide. By the 1860s, bison sightings had become rare in the state. While we do have bison in the state today, they are captive herds.
For many of us, when we think of elk, we envision wide open spaces in the western mountain states. But elk once called the expanse of Iowa prairies home, and in good numbers. Settlers and hunters took notice of the big game, which provided meat prized for both its quantity and quality. But it didn’t take long to push elk out of the state, with most of them extirpated by the 1860s. The last reported historical sighting of a native elk was in 1871.
In the early days of Iowa’s history, bears were found throughout the state but not necessarily in large numbers. They preferred woodland areas, like those in eastern Iowa, over prairie. But as Iowa’s largest predator, settlers saw black bears as a threat to their crops, livestock and families, leading them to kill any bears that crossed their path. While we haven’t recorded any bears taking up residence in the state since the mid-1800s, we do sometimes have adults that traverse into Iowa. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are home to breeding populations of black bears. Southern Missouri has a small but expanding population of bears, and a few bears still inhabit the Black Hills of South Dakota. So it’s not uncommon for a black bear to wander into Iowa, but they generally don’t stay long.
Of the three wild cats native to Iowa – the lynx, mountain lion and bobcat – only the bobcat remains a permanent full-time resident. The bobcat was much more common than the other two cats, with the lynx generally found in northern Iowa. Early settlers often confused the lynx and bobcat, and didn’t discriminate when it came to collecting bounties on them, as they considered the cats a threat to livestock. However, the cats usually feed on rabbits and other small animals, not larger game or livestock. The lynx disappeared from the Iowa landscape by the 1880s and now, the closest populations are in northern Minnesota and Canada. While male mountain lions occasionally wander through the state, we haven't had a female mountain lion documented in Iowa for more than a hundred years, and so, no established breeding populations here.
Learn more about occasional and unique wildlife visitors to Iowa.