Standing on a vista overlooking the expansive Cayler Prairie, it’s easy to imagine bison - the icon of the open prairie - at home on this historic area.
The 1,200-acre rolling prairie complex in Dickinson County, a short three miles west of West Okoboji Lake, boasts some of the highest quality and diverse virgin prairie in Iowa.
At the heart of it is Cayler State Preserve, a destination prairie popular with academics, prairie groups, birders, hunters, school groups and more. And why not? With the preserve supporting around 220 different native plant species adjacent to hundreds of acres of quality upland habitat with natural shallow wetland potholes and the Little Sioux River corridor mixed in, Cayler Prairie Wildlife Area literally “has it all.”
“It’s a really unique site. It’s a birders Mecca. The stretch of the Little Sioux is popular with kayakers. It’s known for good pheasant, duck, deer and dove hunting,” said Chris LaRue, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “My favorite part is the preserve based on its unique topography and extremely high plant diversity. The river adds to the natural setting.”
The quality of prairie on Cayler State Preserve was confirmed in 1944 by noted Iowa State University botanist Ada Hayden who was touring the state as part of a project to identify high quality areas. The 160-acre former hayfield and pasture was acquired in 1958. It was dedicated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Parks Service in 1966, one year after Iowa established its state preserve system. It was dedicated as a state preserve in 1971.
To this day, it is one of the best places to view native prairie in Iowa.
“Cayler State Preserve is a very good representation of what Iowa’s prairie heritage looks like,” said John Pearson, botanist with the Iowa DNR. He advised visitors heading to Cayler Prairie to manage their expectations.
“It’s not the Grand Canyon. It’s not mountains. Its native plants growing on a gently rolling topography – not a dramatic topography or scenery. But be impressed with the sheer number of plant species on the property,” Pearson said.
In 1998, Cayler quadrupled in size creating a one square mile prairie. The new acquisition offered a buffer of protection to the state preserve, and in turn, was provided a unique opportunity to increase its plant diversity simply through its location. There is no better example than the discovery of prairie bush clover, a federally threatened species, which has now been found on the 1998 acquisition.
“What we thought was an isolated population on the state preserve has been found on the steep slopes on the buffer area,” Pearson said.
Cayler Prairie’s mix of uplands, pothole wetlands and timber river corridor attract pheasants, waterfowl and deer, that, in turn, brings pheasant hunters, duck hunters and deer hunters. The Twin Forks section offers a change in landscape. The riverine valleys where the West Fork of the Little Sioux joins the main branch of the small prairie stream. It’s a popular section for kayakers.
Cayler Prairie was designated as a state Bird Conservation Area in 2011, due, in part, to the area providing important nesting habitat for declining grassland birds, such as upland sandpiper, northern harrier, bobolink, and Henslow’s sparrow.
Trumpeter swans nested successfully in 2020, producing four cygnats on one of Cayler’s wetlands. It was the first time trumpeter swans nested successfully at Cayler in recent history.
Wildlife biologist Chris LaRue uses a combination of rotating prescribed fire on select small areas, and grazing cattle on the reconstructed prairie to replicate what Mother Nature and the bison did for centuries.
Cayler State Preserve is one of the most studied prairies in the state including an early study published in the Proceedings of Iowa Academy of Science in 1956, that provided a thorough identification of plant species on the area. Other studies focused on mosses and liverworts, and another on vertebrates. The high-quality pollinator habitat on Cayler has benefitted butterflies and bees which has attracted scientists here to study butterflies, especially monarchs, insects and more.