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Science-Based Conservation

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Published on: Aug. 15, 2012

Ducks and geese straight ahead!” Excited chatter on the headset interrupts the steady drone of the engine, as the small single-prop plane reaches the extensive wetlands at Grand Pass Conservation Area. Through the early morning haze, a virtual sea of birds—tens of thousands of waterfowl on their yearly migration—comes into view below.

For the next pass, the pilot banks and drops low. MDC Resource Scientist Andy Raedeke cranes his neck and begins counting the incredible moving mass of birds. The plane follows a grid flight pattern for half an hour. His final calculation: 70,000 mallards, 15,000 green-winged teal, 10,000 pintails, 4,000 gadwalls and widgeon, 1,000 coots, and 500 ring-necked ducks. Raedeke’s aerial counts help biologists learn how many waterfowl visit Missouri, when they migrate and where they stop to eat. The information helps set hunting seasons and lets wetland managers know how much habitat to provide.

Raedeke contributes to waterfowl conservation efforts not only in Missouri, but efforts that span from Canada to Mexico. He also helped write the 2012 North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

Rooted In Science

Raedeke and countless other Department resource scientists create the foundation of science and research that continue to advance the Department’s mission to conserve the state’s fish, forests and wildlife. Since the Department was founded in 1937, using science rather than politics to guide decisions has been at the heart of science-based conservation.

“One of the tenets of science-based conservation is using facts and data to assist in making wildlife management decisions,” says Dan Zekor, MDC research center unit chief. “Science served as the foundation for our conservation efforts 75 years ago, and that tradition continues.”

Most Missourians would assume this is ‘business as usual,’ but many other states “struggle to get their best information on the table for consideration,” says Zekor. “We are fortunate that good science and public input guide fish and wildlife management.”

Pioneer In Science-Based Conservation

The Conservation Commission, even in its infancy in the late 1930s, placed high value on the need for solid information to facilitate decision-making. The first Commissioners wrote, “Regarding research, the Commission recognizes that it cannot perform an intelligent job of enforcement, regulation or management without sound basic facts. Fact-finding and research are therefore essential before the Commission reaches any conclusions on important matters.”

Put simply, science and research provide the information needed to address a host of natural resource management issues. Many of the Conservation Department’s early fish, forest and wildlife management programs were based on a 1937 wildlife survey by biologists Rudolf Bennitt and Werner Nagel. Their findings were grim. Only 2,500 turkeys and 2,000 deer remained in the state. Prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, beavers, otters and raccoons also were scarce. Other species, such as elk and buffalo, were gone from the state. This early survey laid the groundwork for the conservation tasks ahead, including restocking programs, closed seasons for deer and turkey, and extensive habitat improvement work.

“When we first started to work, there wasn’t a deer season, and deer had to be transported and introduced into new areas. And there was no turkey hunting,” says Libby Schwartz, retired MDC resource scientist. “Each of us was given a project to work on. And we feel like we did see a lot of progress in a lot of species. So, I’m real proud of that.”

Partnerships Advance Science

In 1937, the first official act of the Conservation Commission was to support the creation of a Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Missouri– Columbia, which worked hand-in-hand with early Department biologists to advance the newly formed discipline of wildlife management.

Today, the Coop Unit is a partnership between MDC, the University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Management Institute. This collaborative relationship, with its emphasis on good science to inform natural resources management, benefits all partners in many different ways.

“The partnership between MDC and the University of Missouri’s (MU) Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences Department, in generating the science upon which conservation decisions are made, goes back to the very beginning of wildlife management as a profession,” says Mark Ryan, director of MU’s School of Natural Resources. “This partnership between a state agency and a land-grant university was among the first anywhere and remains a model for other states and nations.”

Because of the diversity of fish and wildlife resources in Missouri, the Coop Unit pursues a broad focus of research, although it has long emphasized waterfowl ecology, big river ecology and management, and stream fishery resources.

“The Missouri Unit has a strong record of serving the science and education of its university, state and federal partners,” says Ken Williams, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Research Units national program. “The success of the Coop Unit has relied on the long-standing support of the Missouri Department of Conservation, which has been at the forefront among state agencies in integrating science discovery and its application to solve real natural resources problems.” Learn more at coopunits.org/Missouri.

Leader In Science-Based Conservation

Missouri has a long legacy of creating and implementing science-based conservation. “Many fish, forest and wildlife management techniques used around the world today were developed by MDC researchers,” says Mike Kruse, MDC resource science division chief. “We were the first to use and evaluate length limits in fish populations, the first to develop artificial feeds for rearing trout, the first to rear hellbenders in captivity, and the list goes on and on. When you look back at the research, science and management techniques developed by the Department, you realize we are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.”

In one example of early Department research, after Lake of the Ozarks and Truman reservoirs were established, wild paddlefish movements upstream to spawning habitats were blocked. To provide recreational paddlefish angling opportunities, Department biologist Charles Purkett found paddlefish eggs and fry, and studied paddlefish spawning requirements. Department biologist Tom Russell and Hatchery Manager Jerry Hamilton learned how to hatch and rear paddlefish to boost their numbers. Missouri now has some of the best paddlefish fisheries in the country, thanks in large part to those early conservation efforts.

In another example of early Department research, biologists Allen Brohn and LeRoy Korschgen developed a precipitin test to distinguish deer meat from other meats. This test was allowed in courts and assisted conservation agents in prosecuting deer poachers. Today, conservation agents still rely on sound scientific evidence to solve wildlife crimes. Modern-day techniques utilizing DNA testing now help conservation agents bring deer poachers to justice.

Several recent science-based conservation successes benefit the hellbender, an endangered aquatic salamander. Department Herpetologist Jeff Briggler and Hatchery Manager James Civiello successfully collected and hatched hellbender eggs from the wild. Working in collaboration with the St. Louis Zoo, they have successfully reared juvenile hellbenders for release back into their native streams. In addition, Briggler, Fisheries Management Biologist John Ackerson and Fisheries Technician Chuck Wichern successfully pioneered the use of artificial nesting structures for wild hellbenders in Ozark streams. Biologists in other parts of the country are now using these structures to increase the numbers of this declining salamander.

“We’ve always had some of the best people in conservation, who have used science to guide their work. They are leaders in their respective fields and are frequently invited to other states and even other countries to help solve complex conservation problems,” says Kruse.

LONG-TERM MONITORING

Long-term monitoring of Missouri’s natural resources is foundational to understanding biological trends and forms the basis of the Department’s science-based conservation efforts.

“The Department’s biologists and foresters have countless long-term monitoring efforts underway, many of them with decades or more of historical data,” says Kruse. “This information allows us to track the status of fish, forest and wildlife resources and do a better job of managing them in the future.”

Missouri’s biggest outdoor laboratory is the forest itself, where a 100-year study is now underway. Launched in 1990, the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project (MOFEP) is monitoring how different management practices affect a more than 9,000-acre expanse of Ozark forest. “Forests operate on a different time scale than people. To understand them, you have to work on their time scale. The longer we stay with our study, the better we will understand how to sustainably manage Ozark forests,” says MOFEP Field Coordinator Randy Jensen.

MOFEP seeks to answer how different forest management practices influence abundance and reproductive success of birds, tree growth, species composition and regeneration, and how much carbon Ozark forests sequester. This collaborative research project involves biologists and foresters from the Department, U.S. Forest Service, the University of Missouri, Missouri Department of Natural Resources and numerous other agencies and universities. Learn more at mofep.mdc.mo.gov.

“This is an ambitious project unlike anything else of its kind,” says MDC State Forester Lisa Allen. “The more we learn, the better job we can do at managing Missouri’s forests. Since forests are always evolving and changing, that’s where we need to be—using the forest as a classroom, to study it in real-time.”

Long-term monitoring also helps biologists better understand how to manage Missouri’s waters and improve the state’s fisheries. “Thanks to our sciencebased approach to conservation, we now have a much deeper understanding of how our natural resources function,” says Bob Hrabik, a MDC biologist specializing in fish taxonomy and natural history.

“In the Department’s early years, checking the catch of an angler—called a creel census—was a primary way to keep tabs on fish populations. Over time, science-based techniques and technology have evolved, offering today’s Department biologists a much broader range of tools and methods to survey and track the health and changes of Missouri’s fisheries,” says Hrabik. “Some examples include improved trawling and electrofishing methods, the use of reward tags and surgically implanted data storage tags in telemetry studies, and collaborating with other state and national fisheries monitoring efforts. These techniques allow us to study fish movements, describe patterns in migratory behavior, and predict spawning success with many species, including sturgeons, paddlefish, catfish, and many other recreationally and commercially important fish.”

The Department’s Resource Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAM) monitors long-term trends in the health of Missouri’s warm-water, wadeable streams. This database helps direct conservation work to where it is needed most. Sampling sites are chosen at random from 17,507 miles of permanently flowing, but wadeable,Missouri streams.

“The program’s focus is on the living organisms in streams because their well-being is the ultimate goal of our stream conservation efforts,” says Matt Combes, Department resource scientist and RAM coordinator. “Fish and macroinvertebrates are affected differently by water quality and disturbed habitat, so it is important to sample a variety of organisms.”

One of the state’s longest, continuous monitoring programs is the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program for the Mississippi River. Staff at the Big Rivers and Wetlands Field Station in Jackson monitor a 50-mile stretch of the Mississippi River and provide managers, scientists and decision-makers with information on the long-term changes in fish communities, water quality, riverbank vegetation and land use.

To further monitor and improve fish, forest and wildlife management, MDC operates five field stations around the state, in Kirksville, Clinton, West Plains, Chillicothe and Jackson. Each field station has statewide responsibility for a designated ecological system: agricultural, grasslands, forests, and large rivers and wetlands along the Missouri, and Mississippi rivers, respectively.

“Field stations advance resource management by investigating questions surrounding fish, forest and wildlife management,” says Rochelle Renken, MDC resource science field chief. “At the field stations, researchers and managers work together to develop and evaluate solutions to management challenges. Examples of such collaborative work are evaluations of prairie chicken translocations, the effects of prescribed burning on the wood-product value of trees, and wildlife use of federally funded conservation practices in agricultural landscapes.”

Balancing The Needs Of People And Wildlife

Science-based conservation balances the needs of people and wildlife. How Missourians use and interact with the state’s fish, forests and wildlife is taken into account when making management decisions.

“Citizen input and involvement are critical to conservation,” says MDC Director Robert L. Ziehmer. “Part of delivering excellent public service is to listen and understand what Missourians say about conservation programs and services. The challenge is gathering public opinion in a way that is scientifically sound and unbiased.”

Last year, these efforts included a survey of firearms deer hunters, a landowner and deer survey, a survey of small-game hunters, a survey of spring turkey hunters, 16 waterfowl season meetings, a timber price survey, and visitor surveys at Springfield and Powder Valley Conservation Nature Centers. This information helps guide decisions about regulations and resource management.

“Surveys tell us that 91 percent of Missourians are interested in Missouri’s fish, forests and wildlife. And that a majority of Missourians feel the Department of Conservation is doing a good or excellent job of providing services to them, their families, community and the state,” Ziehmer says.

Regulations

In the early days of the Department’s existence, regulations may have only focused on the need to protect species by designating open or closed hunting and fishing seasons. Today, developing regulations to support fish and wildlife management is vastly more complicated. The process for adding or changing regulations in the Missouri Wildlife Code begins with evaluating the science- based needs for the change in addition to obtaining feedback from the public.

“In the case of deer management, we must consider not only what is good for deer, but also the social carrying capacity—what number of deer people will tolerate, which is a much lower number than the biological carrying capacity,” says Jason Sumners, MDC deer biologist.

“We also take into account changing attitudes. Each year, the Department measures deer hunter attitudes and tracks trends. All of these surveys and scientific measures allow us to make well-informed decisions. Collecting long-term data and modeling that information is what allowed us to develop and implement the 4-point antler restriction regulation we now have in place,” says Sumners.

The Promise Continues

The promise to work with Missourians, and for Missourians, for wildlife restoration and conservation continues today. In 2011 and 2012, elk were released in a defined restoration zone in Carter, Shannon and Reynolds counties. Wild elk, formerly abundant in the state, had not been seen in Missouri since 1865.

Science-based conservation is also helping biologists study black bear populations, hatcheries staff improve state fisheries, landowners create better habitat for quail and prairie chickens, and is giving a number of state and federally endangered species a fighting chance. Many other conservation success stories are also grounded in the science created, honed and implemented by numerous Department biologists over many decades.

What began 75 years ago as a “grand experiment” in conservation has evolved into today’s Department—a national leader in fish, forest and wildlife management and conservation—with management decisions guided by sound science. That science balances the needs of Missouri’s people with the needs of the state’s fish, forests and wildlife.

“Nationwide, the Missouri Department of Conservation is looked up to because we have led the way for so long,” says Glenn Chambers, retired MDC biologist and filmmaker. “And we’ve done a good job of delivering what we’ve promised. That goes a long way with keeping the public with you.”

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