Every Cog and Wheel
Every plant and animal species native to our state is valuable. Each plays an important role in maintaining a healthy and diverse environment. Many of these species are also important for economic or aesthetic reasons—or could be in the future. For example, more than one-fourth of all prescription drugs today have plant origins. Our native species could hold medical or economic values that we have not yet discovered. For conservationists to sustain our rare species, they must first know their status and distribution and be able to identify the natural habitats on which they depend.
Since 1981, the Conservation Department has tracked occurrences of rare species and outstanding natural habitats through the Missouri Natural Heritage Program. The program is our state’s unit of a national network. The network, called NatureServe, links individual state programs, assuring that consistent methods are used so that nationwide analysis can be done with the collected data. A species’ range usually extends over several states, so the bigger picture is necessary to assess each species’ overall status. Records are kept on each known occurrence of a tracked species or habitat. Each rare or threatened species receives a range-wide ranking, based on rarity and threats, as well as a state ranking from each state in which it occurs.
Records of occurrences come from a variety of sources. These include professional biologists at state, federal and private agencies; knowledgeable amateurs; private landowners; and museum specimens that may have been collected recently or as long ago as the early 1800s. What constitutes a record varies with the type of organism. For plants, the sighting of one individual constitutes a record. For some birds, a record requires evidence of nesting; the same bird species, passing through Missouri on migration, would not justify a record.
Biologists review all records to assure the accuracy of identification and the uniformity of the data. They also determine which species and habitats should be tracked. Species are added to or deleted from the tracking checklist as new information becomes available on their status in Missouri. The tracking list is updated and annually reprinted to allow scientists working here to know which species are considered rare, and for which ones we are seeking data on occurrences. Currently, the Natural Heritage Program tracks 27 lichen species, 614 plant species, 398 animal species and 86 natural habitat types. This includes the 67 species in Missouri that are protected as endangered by