Native Habitats for Native Species
Public land stewardship programs are very different now than they were 50 years ago. When we had a habitat problem during the early days of conservation, we tended to search for a magical solution. We might, for example, introduce a non-native plant, thinking it would meet the needs of all wild things, or at least the species being managed at the time. Such attempts rarely lived up to expectations, and sometimes caused new problems.
It’s a fact that most of our early habitat management decisions on public land usually benefited game animals. That’s largely because game restoration was crucial at that time and, unlike today, hunters and anglers paid virtually all the conservation bills.
Game animals remain important in our habitat management programs. However, they share the limelight with a myriad of other plants, animals and natural communities. The natural resource field has changed with the times and learned from our past efforts. Today, our prescription for most habitat problems is to restore natural communities.
Through time and experience we’ve learned that the native plant and animal communities that historically occurred here are usually best at supporting all of Missouri’s native wildlife, including healthy populations of game animals. Native plants and animals have adapted to one another over thousands of years and respond to each other in ways that ensure their mutual survival.
Our effort to re-establish native plant and animal communities is evident at many of the state’s conservation areas. When you visit these areas you may see a prairie, savanna or wetland restoration in progress, or one that has been recently restored. These natural communities not only benefit bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer and wild turkey, they also support a rich diversity of species relished by birders, botanists, photographers and naturalists.
We still conduct agricultural operations at some conservation areas. Haying is allowed when it benefits specific native plants, plant communities or wildlife habitat. Cropping helps us manage plant succession and is an important early step in restoring native grasses. In some cases, cropping provides high energy food for migrating waterfowl.
You may see cattle grazing at a few areas. These cattle replace bison, whose grazing formerly helped maintain prairie habitat. We rely on controlled grazing to modify grassland structure in ways that benefit declining grassland birds, including bobwhite quail. We also use prescribed burning on thousands of acres to mimic the periodic natural fires that formerly contributed to the richness and integrity of our native grasslands.
Early Europeans visiting what would become Missouri described a rich world of wild places and native things. From their accounts, we know of the spectacular pine forests and bluestem savannas of the Ozarks, the dark swamps of the Bootheel and the expansive tallgrass prairie of northern and western Missouri.
Our conservation areas provide wonderful opportunities to partly restore this “rich world of wild places and native things.” We can manage these areas to re-establish habitats for native species and to protect unique natural communities. As an added benefit, restoring and managing native plant communities results in a wider range of ways that the public can benefit from these areas.
We never lose sight of the fact that conservation areas belong to the people of Missouri and are for their benefit. Conservation areas have always provided room for people to enjoy the outdoors. Now they are doing so much more.
Why not visit a Missouri conservation area to see what’s developing on your lands?
Dave Erickson, Wildlife Division Administrator