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 the Missouri Wildlife Code and the 36 species that are listed, or are candidates for listing, as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For a complete list, download a PDF at www.MissouriConservation.org.
On the other side of the ledger, data goes out through a number of channels. Through the environmental review process, construction project managers may request information to determine if species of special concern have been documented near the project site. For example, a pipeline company may propose a potential route for a new pipeline. The Department’s review of the route will allow builders to avoid some sites or choose a more appropriate time or construction technique to avoid damage to rare species or habitats.
When conflicts are identified early in the planning process, the damage to rare species can often be avoided or minimized and the development proceeds without delays. Currently, projects requesting environmental review number about 2,700 each year. In addition to identifying possible conflicts with rare species or habitats, the Department may respond by including a number of best management practices related to a particular activity. These guidelines could help minimize erosion and other harmful environmental effects. In some cases, simply adjusting the timing of a project can avoid problems. Work near a cave entrance can be conducted during the months when threatened bats are not using the cave. Work at a site with rare annual plants can be done after the plants’ seeds have already been produced.
To receive a heritage review, project planners can contact the Policy Coordination unit located in the Department’s headquarters or visit our website for more information.
The Department uses the Natural Heritage data to assure that its own land management and construction projects are not displacing rare species. Knowing where pockets of biodiversity are located, planned developments have been relocated to avoid harming them. Land management has been redirected to improve the prospects for particular rare species, once they are known to occur on a tract. Other state agencies as well as the Mark Twain National Forest and national wildlife refuges use the Natural Heritage data in a similar manner. The data are also used to recommend public and private lands for voluntary designation as state natural areas, to perpetuate the character of Missouri’s native landscapes.
While we don’t completely understand the roles of many species in Missouri’s landscapes, it would be foolish to allow our use of the land to eliminate them. As Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management in the U.S., said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Both the rare species and some of their remaining intact habitats must be protected if we are to pass on our state’s natural heritage to successive generations.
Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis) is a small, yellow-flowered plant in the mustard family. It grows only on rocky, limestone-derived soils in southwest Missouri as well as in a few areas of Arkansas. When a project is planned in the area with known records of bladderpod, the species is identified as possibly occurring there, if suitable habitat exists. When a federal power administration office planned brush-control maintenance of its power line easement several years ago, planners requested Natural Heritage information for their right-of-way. No records for bladderpod were known from the right-of-way, but, because the route fell within the Missouri bladderpod area of concern, the species was brought to the agency’s attention and its habitat was described. Review of aerial photography of the power line right-of-way led to the identification of several areas of possibly suitable habitat. When checked by ground surveys, a previously-unknown site for the then federally-endangered species was discovered. Maintenance for that site was tailored to benefit the bladderpod, whereas traditional methods could be used for the remaining right-of-way. A new site was discovered and protected due to the appropriate use of the Natural Heritage Program information.
A strategic goal of the Conservation Department, as well as its constitutional mandate, requires us to conserve the state’s plants and animals and their habitats. A public opinion survey conducted in 2003 indicated that 79 percent of Missourians agree that the Department should conserve and restore rare and endangered plants. The rarest and most threatened of these resources are the ones in greatest need of protection. The goal is to maintain Missouri’s rich biological diversity, from the most obscure cavesnail to our impressive national symbol, the bald eagle. The myriad plant and animal species in our care occur within, and depend upon, a variety of habitats, including prairies, forests, woodlands, glades, cliffs, caves, streams and wetlands. The Missouri Natural Heritage Program allows us to identify what is rare, where those rare elements are located, and what our options are for maintaining these unique pieces of our natural history.
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