A gentle breeze rustles through prairie grass beneath a sparse woodland canopy. A unique landscape thrives where forest meets thin soiled glades. In this mixed habitat, a variety of wild plants grow and support an array of animals. It’s a splendid place where the real wild things are – Peck Ranch Conservation Area.
History Comes to Life
Peck Ranch is one of the largest wildlife management areas in the state that’s managed on a “landscape natural community scale,” and it offers such a tremendous plant and animal diversity, according to Wildlife Management Biologist Ryan Houf.
“Peck Ranch is a demonstration of how forestry, wildlife, protection, fisheries and resource science meld into one multifaceted management machine,” Houf said.
The management machine Houf refers to began more than 50 years ago, when the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) began turkey restoration efforts and Peck Ranch CA was center stage to provide turkeys for trapping and relocation. The area also served as a vital research site for understanding the ecology of Missouri’s remnant wild turkeys.
Forest management, prescribed fire and hunting regulations are all parts of that management machine that has supported a huge comeback for a myriad of wildlife in Missouri, such as wild turkeys, Eastern collared lizards and white-tailed deer. And it all started at Peck Ranch.
Turkeys and the Woodlands
Wild turkeys have specific habitat needs in order to thrive. Cover for nesting and brood rearing was as vital as places for turkeys to forage for nuts and green browse plants. Peck Ranch was a great place to find forest and grassland habitats with appropriate soil and moisture. Turkey nesting cover is found in the mature grasslands or thick forest cover, and the tender growth of grasses and wildflowers make for a great place to rear a brood as they search for insects.
The forest at Peck Ranch isn’t a typical forest. The ground is exceptionally rocky, the soil is thin and often the south or western hillside exposure bakes the soil to release its moisture faster than it would on other slopes. The trees that live here are shortleaf pine, post oak, blackjack oak and chinquapin oak. The ground is lightly covered with leaves, but it also has a strong component of sedges, grasses and plants that tolerate some sunlight but enjoy shade as well. Ecologists call this a woodland.
Quail, songbirds such as blue winged warblers and red-headed woodpeckers, and reptiles and amphibians, including the flathead snakes, king snakes, fence lizards and box turtles, also enjoy this woodland habitat.
Travis Mills, the area manager at Peck Ranch CA, says habitat diversity is the key for woodland management as well as in managing for most wildlife species. He says the rebounding wild turkey population has proven it.
MDC foresters realized some time ago that woodlands need fire, so they incorporated prescribed fire into their management of the area. The woodlands also needed some thinning to balance the system. Part of this is related to Missouri’s historical logging industry. By about 1910, most of Missouri’s forests had been cut heavily with little regard for sustained forestry. A hundred years ago, a ridge-top view like the one at Stegall Mountain on the front cover would have revealed hillside after hillside of stumps and sprouts—a stark contrast to the lush hillsides found there today.
As the land began to heal through the ’20s and ’30s some changes took place. Pines were replaced by red oak species that were able to stump sprout and regenerate more easily than the pine. Limited fire on the landscape didn’t help the pines and allowed a forest of thick red oaks to jump up in their place.
In 1937, turkey season was closed statewide because of the dramatic decline in the wild turkey population. In response, the Conservation Commission purchased Peck Ranch for wild turkey management in 1945. In the 1940s, only 3,000 turkeys remained in the entire state of Missouri. In 1952, biologists at Peck Ranch only recorded nine turkeys, according to Houf. From the beginning of the turkey restoration program in 1954, to the spring of 1979, wild turkeys were relocated from Peck Ranch to 142 areas in 87 counties. A total of 2,611 turkeys were trapped and released in Missouri.
Woodland management continued to improve, and the wild turkey population grew in response. Foresters who paid attention to the red oak decline in the 1990s began to see the wisdom in spacing the woodland trees a bit more to give hearty trees a chance to thrive. They also witnessed how pines thrived on hot, sunny, rocky sites with poor soil, which showed pine to be the best choice for the site. Pine made a great host for the ground cover below that many species use for forage and insects.
“The wild turkey was on the brink of extinction and through management and protection they’ve rebounded to the point that Missouri has remained one of the leading states in turkey numbers and harvest,” Mills said. “Peck Ranch was instrumental in the state’s success in restoration efforts through trapping and relocating—but also through woodland habitat management.”
The Glade and its Collared Lizards
A stark difference from the woodland habitat on Peck Ranch is the open glade. Glades are open rocky areas with thin soil that support a variety of sun-loving plants and animals. Ozark glades boast some plants that adapted to hot dry conditions, such as little bluestem, blazing star, dittany, pale purple coneflower, Indian paintbrush, prickly pear cactus, Missouri primrose and acres of rock-covering lichens.
The open landscape, with its sun warmed rocks and glade-loving plants, creates the perfect habitat for Missouri’s dry-adapted animals. Ozark glades have tarantulas, striped scorpions, lichen grasshoppers and, a star among reptiles, the eastern collared lizard.
These lizards are relatively big, colorful and full of character, according to Natural History Biologist Rhonda Rimer.
“Their bright colors are an indicator that they’re visual hunters and defenders of territory, so they certainly like the open glades,” Rimer said.
But Missouri’s collared lizards didn’t always have it easy, according to Houf. In 1982, a collared lizard survey was conducted on Peck Ranch. When no evidence of collared lizards could be found, a management plan was developed that included prescribed fires and clearing on the glades. Twenty-eight lizards were reintroduced between 1984 and 1989 on three of Stegall Mountain’s glade areas. But Houf said about 10 years from the beginning of the release the lizards were surviving but not colonizing new glades.
Biologists discovered that the forest areas between glades were a barrier to the lizards, so they incorporated glade burns into landscape burns (a landscape burn is 500–5,500 acres) to provide better habitat. Though Missouri’s native trees have value in the right place, their shading of the glade cooled the rocks and made it hard for near-desert-adapted species such as the lizards. Cutting cedars and conducting prescribed fires opened up the glade and made life easier for collared lizards.
“After one of the first burns in 1994, lizards colonized 13 glades and in 1996, after an even larger burn, 32 glades were colonized,” Houf said.
Management of the glade spurred the growth of lizard populations and helped them recover from the lulls during the cedar encroachment days. Eastern collared lizards can now be found on most glades on Peck Ranch and surrounding glades managed by The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service.
White-Tailed Deer and Peck Ranch
In a way, Missouri’s white-tailed deer could be considered nature’s botanists because they sample most any plant available. The more variety available, the better their foraging can be. They feed on tender vegetation and forage for nut crops, so they would “know” the plants better than any species. Management at Peck Ranch involves managing the variety of habitats in such a way that deer can take advantage of them all woodlands, glades and forests.
Peck Ranch also has forests with appropriate soils on northern slopes and in the bottoms. One of the natural areas, Golden Seal Natural Area, is a great example of Ozark forest habitat. Forests tend to have taller trees that require more moisture and an assemblage of trees and other plants that don’t survive the droughty glades and woodlands. Plants such as rattlesnake fern, may apples, and dogwoods love what these sites have to offer.
Peck Ranch supports a good deer population, according to Houf, partly because of the harvest of declining scarlet oak trees that allowed for the oak sprouts and the planted pine to regenerate for a healthier woodland community. Ample deer browse and cover are a benefit, he said, adding that one of the area’s management priorities is to not only provide early succession plants but also about 300 acres and growing of green browse supplement, which includes alfalfa, wheat, rye, ladino clover, red clover, crimson clover and orchard grass. According to Houf, it’s the habitat management that’s led to quality deer populations and quality deer hunts for the public.
“The management paths of the collared lizard, the wild turkey and the whitetail deer are one and the same,” Houf said. “As a wildlife biologist, I take the natural community management path. Using the axe and the match to maintain natural plant community diversity and integrity ensures that we’re keeping every cog and wheel for future generations to enjoy.”
The fact that Peck Ranch CA is loaded with wildlife is a direct result of the habitat. Plants unique to a glade, woodland and forest by themselves are good, but when laced together to make a landscape habitat like that at Peck Ranch, they become a perfect recipe for attracting and managing many species of wildlife. Lizards, deer and turkey aren’t the only species worthy of mention; their presence is like a waving banner—something is right about this place.
There are more than 46 species of mammals, such as bobcats, grey foxes, grey myotic bats and black bears, waving the same banner at Peck Ranch. Seventy-five species of reptiles and amphibians join the 195 bird species waving that banner. Plant species like the marsh blue violet and the bristly sedge can be found on Peck Ranch. These species would not be here if the habitat was not just so.
Peck Ranch has been, and continues to be, a solid fixture in conservation history. Its resources and suitability for so many “wild things” makes it not only a diverse place, but also one of beauty and importance.
Partnerships Supporting Elk Restoration at Peck Ranch CA
The Conservation Department has commitments from the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) to help with the funding of elk restoration in Missouri.
Conservation Department Director Robert Ziehmer says partnerships between government and citizen conservation groups make it possible to achieve things far beyond their separate means.
The AWF has committed a minimum of $50,000 toward costs associated with the capture, disease testing, transport, radio collaring and initial monitoring of elk in Missouri. According to the RMEF, it has raised an initial $36,500 to begin paying for construction of an elk holding pen in Kentucky and will continue fundraising efforts.
The MDC will also collaborate with the RMEF, AWF and other conservation partners to develop a long-term conservation plan for elk in Missouri.
Missouri’s restoration plan calls for releasing up to 150 elk in a 346-square-mile area spanning parts of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties, which includes Peck Ranch CA. MDC selected this limited restoration zone because of extensive public lands, suitable habitat, low road density, minimal agricultural activity and landowner support. The plan includes health protocols, herd management guidelines and habitat management recommendations.
The Department is working with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to trap, quarantine and transport elk from Kentucky herds to Missouri. Construction of corral traps and a holding pen in Kentucky began in December. Trapping of elk is expected to happen in January. Trapped elk will remain in Kentucky for several months to meet health-testing protocols. Once in Missouri, the relocated elk will be kept in a holding pen at Peck Ranch CA to allow them to acclimate to the area.
The Department is committed to continuing landscape resource management in the Ozarks for:
- Natural community restoration and to sustain forest health,
- Restoration of wildlife habitat for multiple species, and
- Providing diverse outdoor recreational opportunities for citizens
Key points to remember about elk restoration at Peck Ranch
- Elk is a native species to Missouri, and restoring native species holds many benefits,
- Elk in eastern states tend to be non-migratory and utilize available habitat,
- Limited number of elk will be released,
- Limited area with quality habitat,
- Elk will be radio collared and closely monitored,
- 79 percent of the elk restoration land is open to public access,
- The Department is committed to addressing elk in unwanted locations outside the restoration zone including harassment techniques, trapping and relocating and/or euthanizing elk,
- Hunting is proposed to be implemented as soon as possible after the elk become established, and
- Elk restoration will include health protocols, such as disease testing, to ensure the health of domestic livestock and other wildlife. For more information on Missouri’s elk restoration plan, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/node/10123