News and Almanac

Marionville's white squirrels-ghostly and good for tourism

Imported from Florida? Escaped from a circus wagon? Bred in captivity? No one knows where they came from or why a population of white squirrels has maintained residence in Marionville since the mid-1800s.

"They've just always been here," said a Marionville High School student flatly. "Just walk around a while, and you'll see 'em."

White squirrels may be old news in Marionville, but to first-time visitors, the pallid rodents are eye-opening. There are plenty of brown ones around, too, but Marionville, population 2,000, is among a handful of places where most of the squirrels are snowy white. Eagerly bounding across green lawns or silhouetted against a blue sky high in a maple tree, Marionville's white squirrels resemble cartoon characters. They're cute, and out-of towners can't take their eyes off them.

While hundreds of wildlife watchers and tourists pass through Marionville every year to see them, the town's white squirrels haven't been studied scientifically.

"Without research," says Janet Sternburg, Conservation Department wildlife ecologist, "we can only speculate about their numbers, genetics, rates of reproduction and so forth. We know some things about them, but not as much as a careful study would tell us."

Most biologists agree they are eastern gray squirrels-a common species found throughout Missouri and most of the eastern United States. They also say that Marionville's white squirrels probably are not true albinos.

The term "albino" sometimes is applied to any animal with white fur. But Sternburg says that true albinism is a total inability to form melanins, dark pigments in hair, skin and eyes. True albinos have pink eyes because there is no pigment in the iris to mask the red color of blood passing through blood vessels in otherwise transparent eye tissue.

The gene for albinism is recessive, and recessive traits typically grow less common through generations unless they confer some survival advantage. Marionville's squirrels do not have pink eyes, and they don't seem to be growing scarce. This leads experts to conclude that they aren't real albinos; they just happen to be white.

It is likely, Sternburg says, that Marionville's squirrels will continue to be white unless a significant number of gray-colored eastern gray squirrels migrate into town and mate with the white squirrels.

It's tough for a squirrel that looks like it fell into a white paint bucket to dodge predators. So why does the white squirrel population thrive in Marionville?

The answer is simple: people. Residents take good care of "their" white squirrel population. A city ordinance requires drivers to yield the right of-way to white squirrels, and anyone who attempts to maliciously hurt or kill one can be fined $1,000.

Except for barking dogs, most Marionville residents seem to do all they can to make life comfortable for the white squirrels. Most yards are adorned with nest boxes, littered with corn cobs or decorated with squirrel folk art. A nursing home in the middle of town has dotted its grounds with squirrel feeding stations and strategically placed viewing benches.

It's well worth a trip to see one of the world's few populations of ghostly white squirrels. Marionville is about 35 miles southwest of Springfield on Highway 60. The best times to see the squirrels are in the morning and early evening. They are not as active mid-day or during cold, rainy or windy weather. Park in the middle of town and stroll around on foot, watching for them in trees and on the ground.

-Charlotte Overby

Show-Me State otters thriving

Information from the 1997-98 trapping season and field research shows that Missouri's river otter population continues to thrive.

Last year's otter trapping season was Missouri's second in modern times. To ensure close monitoring of the otter harvest, the Conservation Department requires trappers to have a conservation agent check every otter they take. Post-season tabulations show that Missouri trappers caught 1,146 river otters last year. That is 92 more than the 1996-97 harvest.

Trappers caught otters in 95 of Missouri's 114 counties last year. They took the largest number-nearly a third of the total harvest-in the Ozark Plateau.

Missouri's river otters have multiplied faster and moved into more diverse habitats than expected. The Conservation Department finished an 11-year reintroduction effort in 1992; just four years later the animals had grown numerous enough to sustain an annual harvest.

Otter population models using age, sex ratio and fertility rates from trapped animals and other data indicate that the state's otter population is between 8,600 and 10,600. These population models predict that with a continued harvest of 10 to 16 percent of the state's otters annually, the animals' numbers will continue to grow until otters reach the carrying capacity of available habitat.

Conservation Department biologists say it is difficult to predict how many otters the state can support. A more important question may be how many otters can live here without causing unacceptable problems for the state's human inhabitants. As river otter numbers have multiplied, so have complaints from citizens whose ponds and streams have been visited by the fish-eating predators.

Conservation officials continue to monitor otter numbers closely while working to learn more about how these highly efficient predators may be affecting fish populations in small Ozark streams.

Trapping is both a management tool for maintaining otter numbers at acceptable levels and a way of allowing Missourians to use a valuable renewable resource. The pelts of Show-Me State otters have sold for about $40 each for the past two years.

Lake Taneycomo gets new access

A covered fishing dock, boat ramp, trail and other disabled-accessible facilities are helping Missourians get more enjoyment from Lake Taneycomo.

The new Ozark Beach Public Use Area is off Highway Y south of Forsyth, just above Powersite Dam. The $186,000 project was made possible by the Conservation Department's Corporate and Agency Partnership Program (CAPP).

Bald eagle killer gets jail time

A man who claimed ignorance in connection with the shooting of a bald eagle will have a year to educate himself about the difference between game and nongame animals.

Brian K. Young, 36, pleaded guilty to the charge of killing a bald eagle in November 1995 on the Missouri River near his home town of Lexington. Chief U.S. Magistrate John T. Maughmer sentenced Young to a year in prison, the maximum sentence allowed for the federal misdemeanor. He also will serve one year on supervised release after getting out of prison.

A citizen tip led conservation agents to Young, who claimed that he mistook the bird for a buzzard.

Even if Young's identification of the bird had been correct, he still would have been breaking the law. All birds of prey are protected under federal law.

Furthermore, Missouri's Wildlife Code is what is known as a "permissive" code. Only animals for which open seasons are specifically mentioned may be taken.

If you don't find an open season listed for a particular animal in the code book, taking that animal is illegal.

Groups meet to find conservation common ground

Land developers, city planners and citizen conservationists don't always agree about how land should be managed, but that doesn't mean they can't talk to each other and find common values and goals. Starting this month, the Conservation Department and other groups will sponsor a series of discussions to increase understanding and promote dialogue about sometimes contentious land-management issues.

The first Common Ground Forum is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4p.m. Sept. 10 at Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood. The topic will be flood plain development.

City and county officials, developers and Missouri Stream Teams will be represented on the panel. The public is invited to take part through a question-and-answer session.

The program will include a historical review of flood plain use in Missouri and how the Great Flood of 1993 changed ideas about sustainable flood plain management.

Common Ground Forums planned for December 1998 and March and June 1999 will focus attention on urban streams and watersheds, urban forests and urban redevelopment.

Fees increase at shooting ranges

The fee for using booths at four Conservation Department shooting ranges increased from $2 to $3 per hour July 1.

The change affects August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area shooting range in St. Charles County, the Jay Henges Shooting Range at Forest 44 Conservation Area in St. Louis County, Lake City Shooting Range in Blue Springs and the Andy Dalton Shooting Range at Bois D' Arc Conservation Area in Greene County.

Take a guided trek on the famed Ozark Trail

The Ozark Trail Council and Hostelling International are offering guided, week-long backpacking trips on the Ozark Trail.

Participants will hike 6 to 8 miles per day for a total distance of 50 miles. The hike will cover the Trace Creek and Taum Sauk sections of the Ozark Trail. Two groups of 10 hikers each will start at opposite ends of the trek and pass in the middle.

Trip registration costs $150 for a full week or $90 for a half week, if reservations are made by Sept. 24. Later reservations cost $175 for a week or $100 for a half week. For more information, call (314) 644-4660.

Teachers get college credit for workshops

Teachers interested in earning college credit for training in outdoor education should consider two upcoming workshops offered by the Conservation Department.

Planning, developing and using outdoor classrooms will be the subject of a workshop Sept. 25 and 26 at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.

Missouri mammals will be covered in a workshop Oct. 16 and 17 at the Presley Conservation Education Center in Shannon County.

For more information, call Wendell Jeffery at (417) 882-1142.

Single parents off the hook for hunting, fishing decline

A survey commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service debunks the notion that the increase in numbers of single-parent households has contributed to a decline in the popularity of hunting and fishing.

From 1986 to 1996, sales of Missouri Resident Hunting and Fishing Permits dropped 18 percent, mirroring the national trend.

Women head most single-parent households. Because fewer women than men hunt and fish, it has been assumed that women were less likely to introduce their children to these activities.

But the survey by Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va., found no difference between hunting and fishing activities of children in single and two-parent homes. Single moms take their kids hunting and fishing. Noncustodial dads do, too.

The report noted that the United States' population has shifted dramatically to cities, and city dwellers always have been less likely to hunt or fish than their rural counterparts.

Shaw Arboretum to host Prairie Day

Come to Shaw Arboretum Sept. 19 and experience the pioneer past of Missouri's prairie lands.

From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., visitors to the Arboretum's 75-acre tallgrass prairie in Gray Summit will be able to view live bison, go on guided nature walks, play pioneer games, listen to live music and watch weaving, spinning and other craft demonstrations.

Other exhibits at the free event will include live birds of prey, reptiles and amphibians, people re-enacting the lives of early prairie settlers and an archaeologist and arrowhead maker explaining artifacts of prairie life.

Native plant nurseries will sell wildflowers and seeds. Other vendors will sell buffalo burgers, sumac lemonade and home-brewed sarsaparilla.

Shaw Arboretum is south of I-44 at the Gray Summit exit. Watch for signs to the designated parking area. For more information call (314) 301-1500.

Chigger brew recipe may require prescription

A formula for "chigger brew" published in the May News & Almanac created its own irritation. Several readers have written to report that pharmacists won't prepare the concoction without a doctor's prescription.

Wildlife Management Biologist David Pitts, who supplied the formula, suggests asking your physician for a prescription before going to the pharmacy.

Fatal gun accidents decline

The number of fatal gun accidents in the United States dropped from 2,004 in 1979 to 1,225 in 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The drop in gun deaths coincided with increased hunter and firearms safety education. Funding for this work comes from a federal excise tax on handguns and archery equipment. Volunteer teachers come from the Izaak Walton League of America, the National Rifle Association and the National Wildlife Federation.

Big River Days are Sept. 19-20

The fourth annual Big River Days festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 19 and 20 at Riverfront Park in Clarksville.

Attractions range from educational to inspirational to just plain fun, and will include a live-fish display, traditional foods and tours of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam. Nationally known wildlife imitator Ralph Duren will be on hand to amaze audiences with his ability to reproduce calls from armadillos to zebras.

The Corps of Engineers, the City of Clarksville and the Conservation Department cosponsor the event. For more information, call (573) 242 3724.

Ask the Ombudsman

Q: Here in the Kansas City area we have too many deer. They're nice to look at occasionally, but the numbers we have now destroy gardens and cause a traffic hazard. Isn't hunting the logical way to handle the situation? Will the Conservation Department authorize killing more does to reduce deer numbers?

A: The Conservation Department is striving to responsibly manage the deer herd. Regulations have been liberalized in areas where we have high populations-primarily north Missouri and the urban areas. Last year archers in your area were able to buy up to five additional antlerless deer hunting permits. Special hunts at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area, Flemming Park and James A. Reed Wildlife Area allowed hunters to further reduce deer numbers in Jackson County. Hunters participating in each of these hunts were required to take an antlerless deer (not counted against their limit) before they could fill any other permits.

In addition to these management efforts, this year we are expanding harvest opportunities by allowing hunters with unfilled any-deer and/or bonus deer permits to take antlerless deer during the January portion of the season anywhere in areas of high deer population area-units

1-17, 20, 22, 23, 58 (includes Jackson County) and 59-regardless of the unit for which their permit was issued.

We're glad you recognize that hunting is essential to controlling deer populations. Access to private land also is critical. We hope hunters and landowners can use the tools provided above to help manage this important resource.

The Ombudsman's is interested in your ideas.

If you have a question, suggestion or complaint about Conservation Department programs, contact Conservation Ombudsman Ken Drenon at P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180. Phone (573) 751-4115, ext. 848.

E-mail Ken.Drenon@mdc.mo.gov.

Rare plant hangs on in Missouri's disappearing prairie lands

How do scientists tell when plants and animals are endangered? In many cases, the method is ridiculously plain. They count them.

Every spring for three years, Conservation Department Botanist Tim Smith has taken 15 to 20 people to Paint Brush Prairie Conservation Area to look for Mead's milkweed, an endangered plant. He stations his survey crew along a 50-foot rope-each person holding a loop one meter from the next. The crew wades through the prairie, peering down at every herbaceous square meter in search of Mead's milkweed plants.

Mead's milkweed grows 12 to 24 inches tall and blooms from late May to mid-June. To pollinate and reproduce, the plant depends on another part of the prairie picture: bees. The bees carry pollen from plant to plant, allowing the flowers to be fertilized and begin seed production.

This is a classic example of the intricate connections that weave plants and animals together into an interdependent community; if the bee population dwindles, so will Mead's milkweed and a host of other plants.

"We don't know why there are so few Mead's on Paint Brush Prairie right now," says Smith. "In the mid-'80s, it had hundreds of stems-around 750-and then we started to notice a decline. We'll survey the area three or four more years, maybe longer, and try to see patterns and correlations between our management of the prairie and number of stems, flowers and fruits."

Few people will ever have the chance to see Mead's milkweed, mainly because our prairies are all but gone. Less than 2 percent of Missouri's original 18 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains. As the prairies diminished, so did plant and animal species. Prairie-chickens, regal fritillary butterflies, prairie mole crickets and many plants besides Mead's milkweed are rare or endangered.

Every year, the survey crew hopes to find new stems of Mead's. Those found in previous years are marked with flags. The modest plant is difficult to spot, and members of Smith's crew sometimes confuse it with dogbane, another prairie plant. A few false alarms are sounded. Smith investigates every one.

And how is Mead's milkweed faring? Carol Davit, Natural History Section staff member, discovered three new stems late in the afternoon. They were near a flag marking plants found the year before. Davit's discovery brings the number of Mead's milkweed stems growing on Paint Brush Prairie to 49.

Smith has records of 56 sites in Missouri where this delicate plant still grows. Two-thirds of those sites are privately owned.

"We found three more stems this year," Smith explains, "but fewer of them had flowered. I don't feel hopeless about it, though. We know of places in the St. Francois Mountains where we couldn't find any-even though old botanical collections proved they were there in 1898. Then in 1991 they were located again, or rediscovered, in the same vicinity.

"On Paint Brush Prairie, the plants aren't doing as well. We have to stay committed to collecting data, varying what we do on the prairie-such as haying and burning-and over the long haul, do our best to learn more about them."

That means this group of "prairie people"-botanists, ecologists, land managers and naturalists-will return to Paint Brush every year to help reach that end. -Charlotte Overby

One for the record books

"You should have seen the one that got away!" We've all heard that one before, but one of these days, someone is going to land "the one" and really have a fish story. If you happen to be one of those lucky anglers, the Conservation Department wants to acknowledge you and your fish.

The Department's Master Angler Award recognizes anglers who catch fish that exceed established weights or lengths. Requirements include:

  • Fish must be caught with hook and line.
  • All aspects of the catch must conform to the provisions of the Wildlife Code.
  • Fish must be weighed on accurate scales, subject to verification-no pocket scales allowed.
  • If doubt exists about the species, it must be verified by Conservation Department personnel.

So as not to exclude anglers who practice catch-and-release, Master Angler rules allow you to use either weight or length when applying for the award. Examples of qualifying sizes for particular fish species are largemouth bass, 8 pounds or 23 inches; white bass, 3 pounds or 18 inches; bluegill, 1 pound or 10 inches; carp, 20 pounds or 34 inches; channel catfish, 12 pounds or 30 inches; crappie, 2 pounds or 15 inches; and drum, 10 pounds or 32 inches.

After measuring or weighing your fish, you must fill out a Master Angler entry form. Entry forms and complete information about the program are available from conservation agents or from Conservation Department Headquarters, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.

Also, don't discount the possibility that your fish could be a state or national record. Really big fish should be taken immediately to a certified scale to be verified by a conservation agent or Conservation Department fisheries biologist.

Catching a big fish isn't an everyday event. When it does happen, the Conservation Department likes to say, "Hey, nice going!" The Master Angler and state-record fish programs are for the ones that didn't get away.