The three-toed amphiuma is one of Andy West’s favorite animals. Most Missourians have never seen this secretive eel-like animal, which is North America’s largest amphibian, but West has seen several of them in their swamp habitat at Duck Creek Conservation Area near Puxico in southeastern Missouri. “They are one of the coolest animals we have, and they are so well adapted to this swamp community,” said West. “It is exciting that we have a viable breeding population of this imperiled species. For me, the amphiumas are a beacon of hope for this area.”
West, a wildlife management biologist for the Department of Conservation’s southeastern region, along with his colleagues in the Department, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and with other conservation groups, have a formidable task before them: Restore natural hydrologic conditions to the Mingo Basin Conservation Opportunity Area (COA). “Our goal is to have healthy bottomland forest and wetland communities by reconnecting them to the water patterns that originally sustained them,” said West.
Comprised of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, Duck Creek Conservation Area and private land, the Mingo Basin COA conserves 17,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and cypress-tupelo swamps. This is the largest remaining tract of bottomland hardwood forest anywhere in the state, and the largest network of bottomland forest, swamps, sloughs and ox-bows in the south- eastern Missouri lowlands. This area and other remaining bottomland communities throughout the state provide important habitat for a diversity of rare and endangered plants and animals.
Going…But Not Quite Gone
Since statehood, industrious Missourians have ditched, drained, cleared and plowed most of Missouri’s bottomland hardwood forests and many swamps, not just in the southeast but throughout the state, especially in the large floodplains of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They deemed the trees too valuable not to cut, and the relatively flat land too rich not to be cleared and cultivated. Bottomland hardwood timber and rich bottomland soil have contributed greatly to Missouri’s agricultural economies.
The trade-off has been a dramatic loss of our bottomland hardwood forests and swamps. Once covering an estimated 9 percent, or 4 million acres, of Missouri, we now have only 800,000 acres of bottomland forests. After prairies, swamps of southeastern Missouri are the rarest of all natural communities in the state. The only ones left are those that were too difficult to drain.
These natural communities are wealthy not only in extractable resources for people, but in biological diversity. For example,