The Missouri Pond Program
A legacy that continues to benefit wildlife
In the early 1930s permanent sources of high-quality water for fish and wildlife were in short supply in Missouri. The state was coming out of a severe and prolonged drought, and fish and wildlife populations were declining. In 1938, a study found there was only one water source capable of supporting wildlife throughout the year for every 13,755 acres of land in the state. This lack of water severely limited the range, survival and reproduction rates of rabbits, quail, deer, turkey and many other upland wildlife species.
This sobering scenario set the stage for the creation of the Conservation Department’s pond program—one of the Department’s most successful early programs.
The pond program was the idea of Harold Terrill, an early MDC biologist hired in 1937. Terrill had previously worked for the University Extension Program and their farm pond program. This program promoted farm ponds for livestock watering throughout the state. When Terrill joined MDC he promoted using those farm ponds as sources of water for wildlife and livestock.
The University Extension Program was already an established source of assistance and information to Missouri farmers, so the collaboration was a good fit. The partnership that resulted from MDC and the Extension Program provided a conduit for ideas on wildlife management from biologist to landowner that had never before existed. In its infancy the program mostly provided advice on ponds and their benefits. As the program matured and gained federal support, MDC was able to offer more assistance to landowners. The additional assistance came in the form of equipment for digging ponds, cost share for fencing, piping, livestock-watering tanks and providing fish for stocking ponds.
This program became one of the most successful and important programs of its time, with a main goal of getting water on the uplands for wildlife. In 1941, 682 farm ponds were built. Soon the program, with the help of partners, was responsible for more than 320,000 ponds across the state. This program gave a real boost to upland wildlife populations, and greatly increased close-to-home fishing opportunities. As the program matured, its goals have changed many times over the years. As farm ponds became more common, and water more abundant for wildlife, the Department invested less in building ponds and more in helping landowners manage existing ponds by growing better fish, creating healthier ponds with a better balance of fish species, and maintaining high quality, close-to-home fishing opportunities.
In 1941 the first farm pond built under the pond program was on the Matt and Margaret Voss farm near Linn, in Osage County. Their sons, Bill and Matt Voss, still own and live on the family farm where the pond exists today, some 71 years later. Bill was 18 years old in 1941 and helped his father build the pond. “We used a combination of either a horse team or a tractor pulling a chipper plow to break up one foot deep furrows of soil at a time across the basin of the pond. Then my father and I used a tractor with a scraper to scrape off the plowed soil so we could start again with the plow,” said Bill.
Bill said it took about a month to build the pond and it filled with water almost as soon as it was built. They installed boards along the dam of the pond at the waterline to act as a wave break to reduce erosion and soil loss as they established grass around the pond’s perimeter. The pond was fenced off from livestock, and a watering tank was installed below the dam to provide water for the family’s cattle.
The brothers recalled that the pond was the only reliable place to fish in the area. The brothers, especially the younger brother, Matt, enjoyed many fishing trips to the pond. He had the pond drained and dug out several years ago, using a bulldozer this time, and restocked it with fish. The pond is still a source of water for wildlife and fishing today. —Scott Williams