Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife conservation, said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
That wisdom saved me money and embarrassment as a young man when I found myself too deep into an old pickup engine overhaul and needed a professional mechanic to put the pieces back together; but more importantly it has guided my professional efforts as a fisheries biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
What Leopold was getting at was that every species of plant and animal is interconnected and important to a healthy environment, even if we don’t know why. That’s why it’s so important to conserve every species.
Working to conserve aquatic plants and animals is an important part of my job. It’s a challenge, however, to act efficiently and practically when Missouri’s aquatic species include more than 200 fishes, 32 crayfishes, 65 mussels, 56 snails, 2,000 aquatic macroinvertebrates such as mayflies and stoneflies, and 400 water-related plants.
Missouri, with direction from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, created a state Comprehensive Wildlife Strategy to meet this challenge. The approach of our CWS is to conserve all of Missouri’s native plants and animals by conserving the habitats they depend upon. For an overview of the CWS, see the October 2005 Conservationist.
It’s helpful to understand how the CWS process guides us to select the best places and opportunities.
We use the CWS process to help us select the best places and opportunities to protect Missouri’s aquatic plants and animals. Our selection process also rests on four fundamental principles:
Conservation of stream ecosystems is key to the conservation of aquatic species. Trying to conserve each species, one by one, is not practical. Groups of interrelated aquatic species and the habitat they depend upon need to be defined and conserved together.
Watersheds are the fundamental conservation units that define ecosystems for stream systems. A stream is a reflection of the land that feeds it. You can no more disconnect a stream from its watershed than you can disconnect a tree from its roots.
Efforts must be focused when human and financial resources for conservation work are limited. Without focus, resources would likely be used in a piecemeal, fragmented manner and not be sufficient to produce desired results, especially given the many other services and areas that MDC maintains.
Proactive conservation efforts are less costly and more likely to succeed than restoration actions. History has shown us many times that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We should therefore focus efforts when possible on keeping already healthy watersheds healthy.
Our next step was to categorize and compare the physical diversity of watersheds and the plants and animals that live in them.
We used the Missouri Aquatic Ecological Classification System, which was created by the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy. The system divides Missouri’s watersheds and, thus, aquatic habitats into smaller and smaller distinct units based on their geology, soils, topography and other features until all the unique aquatic habitats in Missouri are identified.
Once we determined each unique type of aquatic ecosystem in Missouri, we could then choose a representative watershed for each type that presented the best opportunity for conservation success.
To further fine-tune the process, we considered the level of pollution, the amount of impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, and other aquatic resource stressors in the watershed. We also looked at the number of aquatic species present and the amount of public land within the watershed.
Ultimately, we chose watersheds with the greatest aquatic diversity, the least stress, and the best opportunity for proactive conservation.
This process resulted in the selection of 158 streams and their watersheds. These stream systems have been called Aquatic Conservation Opportunity Areas because they represent the diversity of watersheds, aquatic systems and species throughout Missouri and provide our best opportunities to conserve representatives of nearly all of Missouri’s aquatic life.
In the Central Plains Subregion, we identified 49 Aquatic COAs that capture the full array of aquatic communities and species representative of this region. The Union Ridge Aquatic COA is a terrific example in north central Missouri. Spring Creek flows through this COA and has a high-quality prairie/savanna watershed that is mostly in public ownership.
This prairie stream, with its narrow channels, rocky riffles and deep pools, supports nearly 30 species of fish, including channel catfish, brassy minnows and white suckers. It also supports the flat floater mussel, as well as grassland crayfish and papershell crayfish.
The Mississippi Alluvial Plains Subregion, Missouri’s Bootheel, had only 15 Aquatic COAs. That’s because this region is small and has fewer landscape types than other regions. Because of heavy human impact in the area, there were not a large number of healthy streams to choose from, but those chosen are high-quality representative habitat types and excellent places to focus conservation efforts.
In this subregion, the Mingo COA provides the most diversity, with nearly 50 fish, four mussel and seven crayfish species represented. The historic vegetation consisted of bottomland forest, swamps and marshes.
The Ozark Highlands Subregion, which contains many different landscapes and stream types, has the largest number of Aquatic COAs. Many of its 94 areas are publicly owned and are in relatively healthy condition.
A good example is the LaBarque Creek COA, which provides more than six miles of permanent flowing Ozark stream that supports more than 40 species of fish, including black bass and sunfish, and 10 mussel species. Its level of aquatic biodiversity and richness can be found nowhere closer to the St. Louis area. The LaBarque Creek watershed also supports one of the few sandstone landscapes in Missouri with much of its natural integrity still intact.
Another example in this subregion is the Little Niangua River COA. In addition to nearly 40 fish species, this COA is home to the Niangua darter, which is found only in Missouri. About nine mussel species and two crayfish species also are found there.
With the initial selection process complete, we now know what we have and where many of our best conservation opportunities exist.
The next step for successful, long-term conservation is for all local stakeholders (landowners, agencies, local governments, businesses, conservation groups, etc.) within a COA to voluntarily come together to plan how they want to conserve their aquatic resources for themselves and future generations.
The type of work necessary to conserve aquatic resources will vary from one COA to another, but stakeholders often face the following challenges:
- Controlling storm water and sediment erosion from the uplands to maintain or mimic a natural flow for the stream to support all stages (such as spawning) of the life cycle of each species
- Keeping floodplains open to handle flood water and provide nutrients to the stream
- Allowing a 100-foot-wide corridor of trees to grow along most streams to keep stream banks stable, provide stream habitat and shade the water to keep it cool
- Maintaining a natural, meandering stream channel to create the diverse, deep pool and shallow riffle habitat necessary for aquatic life
- Providing water treatment facilities as needed to protect water quality and prevent excessive nutrients and other pollutants from entering the stream
- Monitoring the aquatic life and habitat of COAs and the successes and failures of conservation projects; such monitoring allows continual evaluation and refinement of conservation efforts.
Local, dedicated and intelligent tinkering will help conserve these special ecosystems in Aquatic Conservation Opportunity Areas and preserve the great diversity of Missouri’s aquatic treasures. It’s been said that diversity is the spice of life, but when it comes to our aquatic resources, diversity is the main ingredient.