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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 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 but one of the 24 inventory projects was co- funded by another resource agency or organization. Notable among these cooperators were the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the Land Reclamation Commission.

The inventory program also benefitted from several earlier inventories conducted by the L-A-D Foundation and by graduate students at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But the most important cooperators in the inventory project were the private landowners of Missouri. Almost without exception, landowners graciously allowed biologists access to their land. They also frequently provided valuable information about sites, leads on additional sites and insight into past management of areas. Without their cooperation the inventory would not have been possible, and without their input it would have been substantially less than it was.

The wealth of information collected by the inventory is being used in a variety of ways. As a starting point, inventory data are entered into the Natural Heritage Database maintained by the Conservation Department. This computer database provides the foundation for efforts to protect the endangered natural resources of the state.

Several of the most significant inventory sites have been purchased from willing sellers by the Conservation Department or The Nature Conservancy. Sites already in public ownership have received management to protect or enhance the features.

Many sites on private lands have also received some degree of protection through voluntary agreements with landowners, or simply by making the owners aware of the feature. When informed that their land supports something rare or out of the ordinary, most landowners feel pride in that ownership and readily invite management recommendations to protect the site.

Because most sites with special features will remain in private ownership, working with landowners holds the greatest potential for safeguarding Missouri's natural heritage. Inventory information also allows local, state and federal officials to make informed decisions when developments are proposed near natural feature sites, so adverse impacts are avoided or reduced.

One unanticipated and often overlooked result of the inventory is that some species, formerly considered threatened, turned out to be relatively common. Purple beard-tongue and Trelease's larkspur were abundant on limestone glades in the southwest region of the state. Two birds that occupy grasslands in northern and western Missouri, the bobolink and sedge wren, were likewise found to be more abundant than previously thought. These species were then "delisted," allowing limited resources and monies to be more narrowly focused on features that truly need attention.

Although inventories of a more limited nature will continue, the massive treasure hunt has been completed, and the hunters find themselves looking back on their inventory projects as the highlights of their careers. They not only found the most spectacular and threatened jewels of Missouri's landscape, they performed the first step in the long process of securing their future

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