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Nothing sounds more common than a mouse, owl, turtle or bat, but in Iowa, loss of habitat and other threats are creating serious conditions for different species of these critters, landing them on Iowa’s threatened and endangered species list.
Plains Pocket Mouse
Far from a house mouse, the plains pocket mouse likes to live in prairie areas with sandy soil for digging its burrows. These mice also like using the sand to take dust baths, which can help deter parasites and reflect heat from sunlight. Due to urban expansion and lack of fire preventing woody encroachment into prairie areas, this species’ habitat has dramatically decreased and lead to the mouse’s endangered classification.
This stately predator prefers to roost in old tree cavities, but much of the mature forest in Iowa has been cut down to make the land available for farming. That led the owls to take to abandoned farmhouses, barns and church towers. The barn owl does not hoot, and instead makes a variety of hisses and shrieks to communicate. As dilapidated buildings are removed and forests shrink, the barn owl is again losing much of its habitat, leading to its endangered classification in Iowa.
Indiana bats sometimes hibernate in massive groups in select caves across their range, although the Iowa populations are smaller. Other hibernating populations can run in excess of 20,000 bats, with some populations numbering as many as 50,000. If disturbed too early, the bats leave the cave in droves and quickly freeze to death due to their small size. Each bat weighs about as much as three pennies, and has a wingspan of up to 11 inches. Due to repeated disturbances by humans and huge death tolls on local populations, the Indiana bat was first listed as a federally endangered species in 1967. Threats they continue to face include habitat loss, poisoning from pesticides and white nose syndrome.
Great Plains Skink
This grassland-loving lizard is the largest skink in the eastern and central United States. The body is tan with dark markings, and the tail can be bright blue in certain specimens. These skinks are very particular about their habitat, and will move out of an area if it becomes too shady. This makes lack of fire and woody encroachment a serious threat, along with urban development and conversion of prairie to farmland. The Great Plains skink uses speed to avoid predators, but if caught can detach its tail to escape. The skink will grow a new one, but the second tail will never be as large as the original. As their habitat decreases, the skinks are more likely to move into urban areas where they are attracted to burrowing under junk. Any sightings of this endangered animal should be reported, with a photograph if possible.
Small and not particularly colorful, Poweshiek skipperlings are butterflies that could be mistaken for moths while flying. Their wings are dark brown with orange edges on top and prominent white veins on the bottom, which can be seen when the butterfly is at rest. They prefer some of the rarest habitats in Iowa today, particularly mature tallgrass prairie and fens. This butterfly is federally endangered. If sighted, the butterfly should be photographed and reported to conservation authorities.
While their striped cousins are common, spotted skunk populations have steadily declined over the past 30 years, earning them an endangered listing in Iowa. They naturally prefer rocky savanna habitats, but these skunks will also use abandoned corn cribs and buildings as nesting sites due to the abundance of prey and easy shelter. They have a very fancy black and white spotted coat and a fluffy white tail, but these pretty markings make the skunk rather conspicuous. So, rather than running away from danger, spotted skunks put on a theatrical display by stomping their feet and balancing in a handstand. It stops being funny if the threat doesn’t back off, as the skunk will then spray its well-known sulfurous stench. Baby spotted skunks learn this handstand behavior from their mother, and will practice together in one of the cutest displays the Midwest can offer.
Long-eared Owl These owls often look surprised due to their long ear tufts and big yellow eyes. Although called ear tufts, the feather protrusions on top of the owls head do not mark where their ears are. Owl ears are quite large and located along the crested line of feathers that encompasses their faces. Odder still is the fact that the left and right ears are not at the same level on the owl’s head – but this gives the owl more precise directional hearing. Long-eared owls typically nest in deciduous or coniferous forests near open meadows or prairies, and their populations have been historically affected by loss of habitat, competition with other owls and biomagnification of pesticides like DDT, leading to their threatened classification in Iowa.
Ornate Box Turtle
These land-dwelling turtles are named appropriately, as they have fancy yellow markings on their dark green shells and bright red eyes. They like to live in sandy grasslands with shrubs for shade, so woody encroachment is a cause of habitat loss for this species as well. While some people like to have pet turtles, it is illegal to take an ornate box turtle from the wild as they are threatened in Iowa.
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