When you look east from high points along Route D in Harrison County, the treeless, expansive, grassland landscape has a western feel that is rare in Missouri. It would be easy to imagine a herd of bison roaming the high, open prairie. You might hear the overhead whistle of an upland sandpiper or the boom of prairie chickens dancing on the distant ridgetop.
What you are looking at, for the most part, is called Dunn Ranch, which includes one of the best remaining tallgrass prairies between Indiana and eastern Nebraska.
Purchased in 1999 by the Missouri Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Dunn Ranch represents a conservation milestone for both The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation. Since the early 1970s, both organizations made several attempts to acquire the property. Twenty-five years after the initial overture, the Conservancy was successful. The initial Dunn Ranch purchase involved about 2,300 acres, but a recent addition expanded the area under protection to nearly 3,000 acres.
More than 1,000 acres of Dunn Ranch is native prairie that's never been plowed. The site supports a robust prairie bird community that includes western meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, dickcissels and sedge wrens. It also contains birds of conservation concern, including upland sandpipers, Henslow's sparrows and greater prairie chickens.
Shortly after acquiring the property, Conservancy staff and volunteers joined Department wildlife biologist Randy Arndt and his crew to plant 17,000 prairie plant seedlings on the nearby Pawnee Prairie Conservation Area. Plantings include butterfly milkweed, prairie clover, Culver's root and other prairie species. As they mature, these plants provide seeds for planting on Dunn Ranch, as well as for Pawnee Prairie and other grassland sites.
Owners of neighboring pastures and hayfields are also important partners in the Dunn Ranch project. Keith Kinne, manager of Dunn Ranch, along with staff from the Department's new Private Lands Division, are working with interested landowners to improve prairie habitat on their land. Cooperative projects include enhancing grassland plant diversity, clearing pastures of honey locust and hedge and adopting rotational grazing. These improvements should benefit prairie wildlife and plant species beyond the boundaries of public lands.
The Nature Conservancy is a private, nonprofit conservation organization with more than one million members nationally. The Missouri Chapter has more than 15,000 members.
The Missouri Chapter has helped protect more than 138,000 acres of the state's prairies, woodlands, glades and wetlands. It owns 36 preserves comprising nearly 17,000 acres.
Over the past 50 years, the Conservancy has earned the trust of America's largest corporations and has partnered with them to acquire ecologically sensitive lands. Working with a nonprofit organization environmental organization like the Conservancy enhances a corporation's public relations and provides some tax benefits.
The Conservation Department and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up for many important projects. In the eastern Ozark hills of Shannon and Carter counties, for example, The Nature Conservancy, with Department backing, purchased more than 80,000 acres of land from the Kerr-McGee Corporation in 1991.
The former Kerr-McGee property encompasses the watersheds of the Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point rivers and contains some of the most ecologically critical land in Missouri. The property's unique natural habitats, which include glades, fens, caves and sinkhole ponds, support more than 700 plant species, including 30 species that are considered endangered or rare in the state.
After completing the transaction with Kerr-McGee, The Nature Conservancy kept about 5,700 acres, which became the Chilton Creek Preserve. The remaining acreage went into the Department's Sunklands, Angeline and Rocky Creek conservation areas, greatly increasing their size, ecological significance and public use value.
The Conservation Department and The Nature Conservancy partnership continues on the former Kerr-McGee land. The Conservancy has joined the Department and the University of Missouri on the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project (MOFEP). This massive study, initiated in 1990, will continue for 100 years. It observes the effects of different timber management practices on the entire forest community, including plants, animals, soil and water, over a protracted period.
The original MOFEP project included nine study areas that range in size from 657 to 1,302 acres. In 1996, the project expanded to include 2,500 acres of the Chilton Creek Preserve, where the effects of prescribed burning will be monitored. Doug Ladd, Director of Science for the Missouri Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, is also the lead investigator for the MOFEP lichen study, the first such study in North America, outside of the Pacific Northwest.
The Missouri Natural Heritage Database guides both the Department and the Conservancy in selecting lands to preserve. The database is part of a nationwide network established in the 1970s. The Missouri Natural Heritage Database contains all known records in the state for rare plants and animals, as well as remnant habitats, such as prairies and marshes.
Most of the sites that contain rare species or habitats will never be publicly owned, so the Department and the Conservancy try to enlist the cooperation of private landowners to ensure the future of these important resources. In rare cases, such as with Dunn Ranch, the Department or the Conservancy will attempt to acquire unique sites from willing sellers.
To ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to hear the booming of prairie-chickens and enjoy the timeless beauty of an Ozark glade, the Conservation Department provides technical expertise and assistance in managing habitat on private land. For more information on programs and opportunities, contact your nearest Conservation Department regional office or call (573) 751-4115.
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