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A Prairie in the Swamp

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

bobwhite quail, mourning doves, white-tailed deer and cottontail rabbits also use these sandy meadows. Joining them are a variety of grassland songbirds, including rough-winged swallows, bluebirds, savanna sparrows, swamp sparrows, dickcissels, lapland longspurs and meadowlarks. Racerunner lizards and fence lizards also thrive on the sandy grasslands. Because there is now less prairie habitat for these animals to use, their numbers are lower than they could be. Habitat loss not only reduces population sizes, but also it also negatively impacts genetic diversity.

At one time there was a considerable amount of prairie in southeast Missouri. Dr. Walter Schroeder, lecturer at the University of Missouri, reviewed old surveyor notes of the entire state looking for descriptions of prairie. He found conservative estimates of 60 square miles of sand prairie in southeast Missouri. By the time surveyors did their work, he noted, many sections of the sand ridges were already settled. This means that the prairie was already converted to farm fields, and fires were suppressed to protect barns, homes, fences and livestock and to keep families safe. Without natural fires, trees turned much of the sand prairies into scrubby forest. In fact, before European settlement, as much as 150 to 175 square miles of prairie may have occupied the sand ridges.

Many of the towns in the Bootheel that aren't on Crowley's Ridge were founded on sand ridges. Booming towns needed land to prosper, and tallgrass sand prairies were the first to be converted to agriculture. Big bluestem and switch grass were major components of these grasslands. These grasses benefit from high organic content in the sand and moderate moisture.

Next in line were the sandy areas with less organic potential and shorter grass. Today short grass prairies remain only on the driest and sandiest locations.

The sand prairies were the sites of major travel lanes north and south. Living on the sand ridge also gave people an opportunity to live on a dry site that offered them a staging ground to access the swamps. Traveling east and west across the swamps was difficult. Pole roads made of cypress poles were built to facilitate travel between the sand ridges. The town of Portageville is one such town from where merchants portaged goods across the pole road to the Malden sand ridge.

Malden Ridge was once the site of the Grand-west- Rosebriar prairies. They stretched north from Kennett through Malden and into Bernie. Sand prairies were less abundant on the Malden Ridge, but those that existed were similar to grasslands found to the east. Higher organic content in the sand probably allowed more moisture to be retained, contributing to better tree growth. Not surprising, agricultural performance on that land was better, too.

The irony of a prairie in the middle of a swamp carried over to place names in southeast Missouri. The most notable is the town of East Prairie. It was named because it was the prairie east of the other prairies found on the Sikeston ridge. Many of the names are now forgotten, but a few residents still recall that the town of Charleston was once known as Matthew's Prairie. A few folks still remember Long Prairie, yet another grassland south of Sikeston.

The whole Sikeston Ridge was considered to be one large prairie by early explorers such as John Breckinenridge. Surveyors called this grouping of grasslands Big Prairie, while some settlers called it Grand Prairie. John James Audubon recorded a visit to the "Little Prairie of southeast Missouri." The particular section he visited was south of East Prairie. This is where he viewed and created his first painting of a Bald Eagle. Perhaps it is no coincidence that East Prairie High School's mascot is the eagle.

Today, less than perhaps 1 percent of the original sand prairies remain, and even this small area is threatened by development. Many plants and animals requiring sand prairie habitat are of major conservation concern. No sand prairies are publicly owned. Landowners wanting to restore or conserve sand prairie remnants on their property can contact their nearest Conservation Department office.

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