Deepwater, Mo. – Bright red Indian paintbrush and purplish prairie violet blooms rose above greening grasses on May 7 as Lucas Hetherington and his Montrose High School classmates walked Chapel View Prairie. Hetherington, 16, pondered grasslands past and present as his school held a prairie field day.
“My grandfather tells me stories about prairie chickens and he’s always taken me out so I’ll know about the prairies,” he said. “I enjoy it. When you go out, it’s always changing, always evolving. Prairie is nature, the things you find there are the most real things you’re going to find anywhere.”
But not everyone who grows up in rural, west-central Missouri is familiar with prairie wildflowers, native grasses and grassland birds. Settlements and farms changed the landscape. Today, less than one percent of Missouri’s native prairie remains. Prairie chickens are endangered and none now live near Montrose, where the students attend school. But native wildflowers still bloom and songbirds call at the 300-acre Chapel View Prairie, a Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) area.
“My dad’s a farmer, and I enjoy walking in the woods and stuff, but I wasn’t too familiar with prairie,” said Mikayla Engeman, 17. “It’s interesting. You learn about the different wildflowers and how Indians and pioneers used plants in recipes and for pharmacy.”
MDC staff hosted Montrose High School freshman, sophomores and juniors at a “Prairie Day” on May 7 in partnership with Pat Sisson, the school’s science teacher. Sisson uses the MDC "Nature Unbound" ecology lessons, a curriculum for high school students provided by the MDC Discover Nature Schools program. Autumn and spring field trips are included.
“It’s good to get the kids out in the real world and see how science really works,” Sisson said.
Prairie Day was organized by Elizabeth Middleton, an MDC resource scientist, and Matt Hill, an MDC wildlife biologist. They were joined by other MDC employees who helped students study birds, use radio telemetry equipment, explore aquatic life in a pond, net insects and kneel down for closer looks at flowers.
“Oh, here’s a prairie violet,” Middleton said, fingers touching pale lavender blossoms. “They're important for the regal fritillary butterfly. They are only found on remnant prairies. Their larvae only feed on these plants.”
The regal fritillary is declining and conservationists are concerned about its future. Middleton wants students living in what was once an expansive tallgrass prairie ecosystem to appreciate complexity and beauty.
“Montrose is in the heart of what’s left of our prairie areas,” Middleton said, “yet a lot of people don’t even know it exists.”
In her native Indiana, prairie species are even more rare and remnants smaller than in Missouri. Native wildflowers bloom on rural roadsides here, and she wants students to recognize the heritage. Seeing the passion that MDC scientists and land managers bring to prairie helps students understand the value.
“Prairie is more than just a bunch of weeds, it’s a system where each component is important,” Middleton said. “Sometimes value starts with putting names on things.”
For more information, contact MDC Education Consultant Cynthia Green. She is based in Sedalia and helps schools such as Montrose utilize Discover Nature Schools. For more information about MDC programs for schools, go to mdc.mo.gov.