The Treasure Hunters

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

They were on a modern day treasure hunt, searching for those priceless pieces of the state that time and progress ignored.

The treasure hunters of this tale were biologists working on the Missouri Natural Features Inventory. And the treasures they found - prairies, old growth forests and endangered plants - had somehow escaped the powerful human hands of a growing nation. These pieces of Missouri's heritage had remained much the same for the past 200 years, predating the arrival of European settlers.

The Missouri Natural Features Inventory began in 1980 and was completed in February 1995. During that time, biologists visited more than 10,000 sites scattered across Missouri's 114 counties. Their top priority was to locate diverse, high quality remnants of natural habitats or communities, such as forests, glades, prairies and wetlands. Endangered plants and animals, outstanding geologic features and unusual natural phenomena were also sought.

The inventory was undertaken because, after 150 or so years of settlement and use, many once-common features of the Missouri landscape are now uncommon or even endangered.

Tallgrass prairie is a case in point. Historically covering 15 million acres, Missouri's prairie acreage is now estimated at about 70,000 acres, less than one-half of one percent of its original extent. Animals and plants characteristic of prairie habitats have experienced similarly precipitous declines. If tallgrass prairie and other endangered features are to remain part of Missouri's natural diversity, they will require active efforts to protect them.

The first step in protecting these natural features is comprehensive knowledge of their status. Which are most threatened? How many are there? Where are they? Which sites are the best? These are the questions that the inventory was designed to answer.

Like any good treasure hunt, the inventory required many hours of research. Inventory biologists pored over reports and field notes of earlier biologists and consulted knowledgeable people, both amateur and professional. They scrutinized topographic maps and aerial photographs for clues. In some cases, they risked airsickness in small planes to get an aerial view of hard-to-get-to sites.

Once sites were selected, often more than 100 per county, the biologists took to the field. And despite chiggers, ticks, heat, rugged terrain, long hours and countless nights in motels, fieldwork was a reward. It's why people become biologists.

The inventory of the state's 114 counties was accomplished via 24 individual projects, each covering from two to nine counties. The pace of a given project varied, depending upon the ecological richness

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