Today, Missouri is again home to abundant and diverse wildlife. Some animals benefited from early restocking efforts, better regulations and vigilant enforcement. Others rebounded thanks to habitat improvements, conservation partnerships, and education and outreach efforts. And all wildlife benefited from the unwavering involvement and support of Missourians every step of the way.
Rally to Conserve Dwindling Wildlife
Early settlers found wild turkey, prairie chickens, deer and elk in numbers beyond counting. “The early perception was that wildlife was incredibly abundant—it was an item in the pantry,” says MDC Commissioner Don Johnson. “Clearly those early settlers thought that the wildlife of the state was inexhaustible and limitless, and probably assumed it would be that way forever. Well, it wasn’t.”
Determined to create a brighter future for the state’s wildlife, Missouri’s sportsmen and concerned citizens came together to lay the groundwork for a new sciencebased conservation department. On Nov. 3, 1936, voters approved the measure by the largest margin of any amendment to the state constitution. This amendment gave Missouri the world’s first apolitical conservation department, governed by four citizen conservation commissioners. Their charge: to protect and manage Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources.
The newly created Conservation Commission implemented an entirely different approach to fish, forest and wildlife management. Public desire replaced political pressure, and biological data replaced personal opinion as the basis for management. New conservation concepts centered on the importance of habitat and the responsibility to safeguard the resource.
Conservation—the concept of wise use—allowed the harvest of wildlife at sustainable levels.
The fledgling Conservation Department based many of its programs on a benchmark study written by biologists Rudolf Bennitt and Werner Nagel, A Survey of Resident Furbearers of Missouri, published in 1937. Their findings were grim—only about 2,500 turkeys and 1,800 deer remained in the state. Prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, beavers, otters and raccoons also were scarce. Other species, such as passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, were long gone.
In 1937, hunters harvested only 106 deer in the entire state. In 1938, the Department closed deer and turkey seasons statewide and began live-trapping and restocking deer throughout the Ozarks. Efforts to provide the “big three” of food, water and cover for deer and other wildlife took many forms. For example, in 1939, MDC launched a pond program, helping Missourians create more than 50,000 new ponds for wildlife in the decade that followed.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, deer and wild