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The Treasure Hunters

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

of the region, but in general a biologist inventoried three to four counties per year.

One recurring theme in the inventory was that of following in the footsteps of earlier biologists and surveyors. Several prominent botanists - Julian Steyermark, Ernest Palmer and Benjamin Franklin Bush - did extensive work cataloging the flora of Missouri in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. It was hard not to feel somewhat awed and reverential when visiting a remote site originally discovered and described by one of these legends.

Many treasures were totally unexpected. A lead on a "shaky spring" sounded interesting, but not especially promising. The setting for the site, farm fields and pasture land, did nothing to raise expectations. But the faithful investigation of all leads, no matter how unlikely, was rewarded beyond all expectations.

The shaky spring turned out to be a fen, a seepy boglike community. Fens are fertile sites for unusual plants, and this site supported four endangered species, including marsh marigold, never before seen in Missouri!

A small prairie remnant in north Missouri served to illustrate two basic premises of the inventory: that high quality habitats harbor endangered species and that much of their true wealth is hidden. On the initial visit to the prairie, the biologist recorded a tremendous diversity of characteristic prairie plants - leadplant, pale purple coneflower, bunchflower, Michigan lily - over 100 species in all, but no endangered species.

Seven years later, after several prescribed burns and dozens of visits by biologists and botanists, the western prairie fringed orchid, a federally threatened species, suddenly "appeared" at the site. The next summer, not only had the orchid population quadrupled, but a second federally threatened species, Mead's milkweed, was found. The next discovery at the site is anybody's guess.

And inventory biologists had their "holy grails" to motivate them when their energy and enthusiasm started to wane. Oftentimes, these unfathomable finds were endangered plants, such as the small whorled pogonia or small white ladyslipper orchid, that hadn't been seen in Missouri in eons.

In 1994, one biologist's quest was rewarded when, in a rich, wooded site in Madison County, she discovered a large clover. After examination by other botanists, the plant was confirmed as running buffalo clover, a federally endangered species that had not been seen in the wilds of Missouri since 1907.

From the start, the inventory program has been a cooperative venture. Although the Conservation Department administered the program, all

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