Missouri's High Plains

The Conservation Department's 5,000-acre Bilby Ranch Conservation Area was once native prairie. The area takes its name from John S. Bilby, a settler who arrived in Missouri's Nodaway County about 1868. Bilby was a cattle rancher who also launched several businesses and helped found a local school. A trip to Europe convinced him of the value of intensely farmed lands, and he became one of the largest landowners in Missouri.

I have often wondered if Bilby was as anxious as I to see this once prairie-dominated landscape. After spending some time in western Kansas and traveling through Nebraska a few times, I was looking forward to seeing the portion of Missouri that was more representative of the high plains than any other part of the state.

As I approached the area by driving west of Maryville on Highway 46, I was not disappointed. I passed the turnoff to Skidmore, and the open prairie landscape of the eastern edge of Bilby Ranch spread out before me. Those who have lived in a relatively treeless open prairie landscape appreciate the beauty of areas like Bilby Ranch.

Acquired in 1989, the Bilby Ranch Conservation Area comprises 5,030 acres of former prairie landscape. Bilby began plowing portions of what is now the current conservation area and also was one of the first ranchers to plant and harvest bluegrass in this region. Since then, the entire tract has been plowed and farmed.

The Conservation Department has replaced about 60 percent of the cropped acres with cool and warm season grasses mixed with legumes (clovers, alfalfa). Many of the large crop fields have been reduced in size to create more edge - the transitional zone between habitat types preferred by many wildlife species. Much of the most erosive farm ground has been seeded to varieties of native grasses with short growth characteristics, similar to much of the native flora that once existed on the area.

Over time, on portions of Bilby Ranch, the Conservation Department will try to re-create the prairie ecosystem that once existed throughout much of northern Missouri. This conversion of cropland to more native vegetation will attract wildlife species, such as Henslow's sparrows, badgers, upland plovers, eastern bluebirds, northern harriers and others.

Idle areas scattered across the area currently serve as brood rearing habitat for game birds, such as ring-necked pheasant and quail. Weeds that grow in these areas attract many varieties of insects that provide a high protein diet for young game birds throughout the summer, while the seeds produced by the weeds provide a food source in late fall and winter.

Fields of mixed grasses and legumes provide brood rearing areas and offer plentiful nesting habitat. As the clovers and alfalfa bloom, insects are attracted to the pollen, and young chicks consume the protein-rich insects. The large variety of grasses available provide abundant nesting cover in the spring for hen pheasants.

The lack of woody cover on Bilby Ranch makes the area less than ideal for bobwhite quail. Unlike pheasant, quail need bare ground for dusting, brood rearing and travel.

Bilby Ranch has become one of the best pheasant hunting areas in Missouri. The fields of weeds, mixed grasses and legumes provide good winter cover for the ring-necked pheasant. Also, during cold and windy periods, pheasants take cover in the deep draws and ravines scattered throughout the area. Many of these draws are difficult to negotiate on foot due to steep banks. In some places it is obvious that these scars were deepened when much of the land was intensively cropped.

Not only has Bilby Ranch become well known for its upland game hunting, it is also becoming an angling hot spot. A 110-acre lake opened to fishing early in 1995. It supports largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish. The lake includes a disabled accessible fishing dock. The Conservation Department placed brushpiles near the dock to provide long term accessible fish habitat.

Seven ponds located throughout Bilby Ranch also provide good fishing to those who don't mind hiking. Many of the ponds have been recently opened to fishing, and several more are planned for construction soon. Check area bulletin boards for locations of ponds stocked and open to fishing.

Bilby Ranch and the surrounding land has seen many changes since the days of John S. Bilby. Residents still talk about experiences they had or changes they saw on Bilby Ranch. Now the area is reverting to a pristine condition.