Grasslands are among the most imperiled North American ecosystems. State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) is a national conservation program that converts agricultural fields into grasslands mainly to improve habitat for high priority wildlife species. To provide a broader assessment of the contribution of the SAFE program to biodiversity in the Midwest region of North America, we evaluated local and landscape constraints to restoration of small mammal communities. We livetrapped small mammals during three summers (2009–2011) on plots that were recently seeded, seeded 1–4 years prior to sampling, or established references (>10 years old). Restoration trajectories for small mammal communities included a shift over time from dominance by the habitat generalist Peromyscus maniculatus (deer mouse) to communities dominated by grassland Microtus species (prairie voles and meadow voles). Vole abundance during the first year following restoration depended on spatial connectivity provided by linear habitats (roadside ditches and grass waterways) within 300 m of the restored grassland. Patch size and seeding type (cool-season versus warm-season grasses) were not predictors of early restoration success. In 2011, voles experienced a severe regional decline consistent with multi-year population cycles. During the crash, most remaining voles occurred on restored SAFE grasslands, but not on established grasslands. This surprising outcome suggests young restoration plots could function as refuges for voles during population declines in agricultural landscapes.