People like to hear stories about how rich the land was prior to settlement. We marvel at the great populations of plants and animals that lived in our forests, prairies, rivers and streams. So much of the history of wildlife conservation is the story of abundance.
Flocks of passenger pigeons along the Mississippi River Valley grew so large they filled the sky with a continuous stream of birds for several days. Wintering prairie-chicken flocks on the high ridges of north Missouri were so numerous they appeared to stand shoulder to shoulder as far as a person could see. Wild turkeys were “too abundant to be worthy of mention.” Photos and news stories from river towns like Hermann documented the “monster catfish” that lived in the Missouri River.
But the stories of abundance are mostly history. The lands and waters witnessed by Lewis and Clark have changed and continue to change.
Passenger pigeons are now gone—extinct. Elk had been eliminated from Missouri by the 1860s—extirpated. Greater prairie-chicken populations in Missouri have dwindled to a few hundred individuals—endangered.
A Changing World
Everyday the world around us is less and less wildlife friendly. Robins and white-tailed deer have proven adaptable and common. Although some species have readily adapted to people and life in a world that is less wild, most plants and animals have not, and are not expected to thrive. Many plants and animals are simply not that adaptable.
The challenge that lies ahead for Missouri citizens and the Department is how, and where, to conserve a representation of fish and wildlife diversity in a dramatically changing world. That is why one of the strategic goals of the Missouri Department of Conservation is “Conserving Plants, Animals and their Habitats.” Plants and animals that are extinct cannot be restored. But it is not too late for many extirpated species—species that are gone from Missouri but still live elsewhere.
“Recovery” for extirpated species is almost never a plan to restore these species to their former range and restore them to former abundance. Restoration for many species is to support small populations in the best places for success, preventing the need for listing them as endangered. Elk, for example, were once found throughout Missouri prior to European settlement. Historical accounts indicate elk were likely extirpated from the state by 1865. In October 2010 the Conservation Commission approved a plan to bring as many as 150 elk to a defined restoration zone in parts