More Than a Meadow
But prairie, we know, is more than a meadow. It’s a richly diverse type of landscape that dominated most of North America for 7 million years. Ecologists classify prairie by soil type and rainfall. North America’s three broad categories of prairie are tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass. They originally stretched from Canada to Texas and from central Montana to Ohio. Before settlement, about one-third of Missouri’s landscape was tallgrass prairie, including savanna, a type of grassland that features widely spaced trees. Today, less than one half of 1 percent of Missouri’s original prairie remains. Still, wildlife and people depend on it for so much.
The iconic prairie-chicken and the regal fritillary butterfly can’t exist without it. Today’s livestock growers benefit from the superior summer forage and hay that native grasses produce.
Many families take pride in their land’s historic prairie, and outdoor enthusiasts treasure Missouri’s native grasslands for their excellent hunting, bird-watching, and wildflower viewing. Everyone has different reasons for appreciating our state’s grasslands, but everyone who loves them agrees: They need our help.
Across the state and beyond, government agencies, nonprofit advocates, farmers, and families are working together to conserve and restore Missouri’s historic open landscapes.
Naturally Diverse Right Down to the Roots
With mostly deep soils and plenty of rainfall, tallgrass prairie is astonishingly diverse. In fact, Missouri’s tallgrass prairie is a collection of unique grassland subtypes, each with its own local mix of soils, water regimes, and plants and animals. The Show-Me State’s tallgrass prairie communities include loess hills prairie, glaciated prairie, unglaciated prairie, sand prairie, savanna, and wet prairie. Given this diversity of grassland subtypes, it’s no surprise that tallgrass prairie supports hundreds of kinds of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees.
The benefits of this rich plant diversity extend below the ground, too. Prairie grasses and wildflowers are famous for their deep root systems, some as long as 15 feet. These do an exceptional job of absorbing water and conserving soil.
They also feed an underground community of fungi, nematodes, and hosts of tiny insects that recycle nutrients and improve soil structure.
Grasslands Provide Essential Habitat
Following nearly 200 years of conversion to farms, towns, and industries, today’s isolated prairie and savanna remnants are scattered among millions of acres of farm fields, towns, and cities. These fragmented landscapes provide the last suitable habitat for many grassland dependent species like the prairie mole cricket, Franklin’s ground squirrel, and the northern crawfish frog.
Fortunately, Missouri’s prairies and savannas are getting help from people like Charles and Rose Ann Scherer who own a remnant of sand prairie in Scott County.
Do You Have a Grassland?
The Scherer family’s sand prairie is an excellent example of landowners teaming up with MDC staff to conserve and restore grassland natural communities. If you have a grassland, prairie, or savanna, give your regional office a call.
Your county’s private land conservationist can help you develop a long-term management plan and find funding to help offset the costs. Find regional office phone numbers.
Conserving Grassland Ecosystems Statewide
In Missouri, private and public partners are working to sustain and restore open landscapes where we can do the most good for grassland habitats. MDC calls these places conservation opportunity areas (COA) and priority geographies (PG) because they have remnants of high-quality native grassland, prairie, or savanna. In general, partners use a combination of prescribed fire, mechanical clearing, and herbicides to help maintain
the landscape’s open character. Technical assistance and cost-share funds help adjoining landowners add value to conservation networks. Public-land managers use prescribed fire and grazing, hold workshops, and host field days to connect the public to the prairies. Ongoing monitoring projects evaluate past management and shape future actions.
Loess Hills Prairie
A German word, “loess” means “loose,” which describes the texture of these prairies’ deep, wind-deposited glacial soils. Less than 200 acres of this remnant prairie plant community remain in Missouri.
The Loess Hills Complex includes lands managed by MDC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as land owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The prairies are managed to preserve unique species like the rare silverleaf scurf-pea, downy painted cup, soapweed, low milk vetch, and the swift tiger beetle.
Missouri’s highly fertile, deep-soil glacial till prairies occur primarily in the Central Dissected Till Plains north of the Missouri River. Here, the Grand River Grasslands PG supports several species of conservation concern, including northern prairie skinks, regal fritillary butterflies, and Topeka shiners. Many important grassland birds, including one of the last remaining populations of greater prairiechickens in Missouri, Henslow’s sparrows, dickcissels, and northern harriers breed within this landscape and benefit from prairie restoration projects at Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairie Natural Area.
These prairies have soils that are generally shallower, often showing exposed bedrock.
The Upper Osage Grasslands PG encompasses both Taberville Prairie Conservation Area and Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, totaling 3,300 acres of native tallgrass prairie, currently owned by MDC and TNC. Nearby, privately owned remnant prairies add value to the existing conservation network, and other grasslands and cropland hold significant restoration potential.
Historically in Missouri, sand prairies likely occurred on deep sand deposits along the Mississippi River, especially in northeast and southeast parts of the state.
Of the estimated original 60,000 acres of sand prairie in southeast Missouri, less than 2,000 acres remain, and they all have been altered by agriculture. Rare species include snoutbean, sand hickory, Hall’s bulrush, jointweed, dusty hognosed snake, Illinois chorus frog, eastern spadefoot toad, and northern harrier, as well as many native bees, sand cicadas, and other insects that we have just begun to learn about.
Because savannas are a blend of grassland and woodland habitat types, their plants and animals tend to be those like white-tailed deer and wild turkey that are able to use both grassland and woodland characteristics.
The Missouri-Iowa Woodland/ Savanna Geography includes portions of five Missouri counties and continues into Iowa. Additionally, this geography encompasses both Spring Creek Watershed PG and Thousand Hills COA.
Conservation efforts have benefited savanna species like rough blazing star, showy goldenrod, and New Jersey tea.
A dense cover of perennial grasses mixed with wildflowers and sedges signals this type of prairie that typically occurs on river floodplains and occasionally in upland prairie depressions or swales. Wet prairies support a variety of wildlife, such as American bitterns, yellow rails, sedge wrens, meadow voles, Plains leopard frogs, and many species of snakes, including the state-endangered prairie massasauga rattlesnake.
In the Four Rivers Wetland and Wet Prairie Complex COA in Vernon and Bates counties, area managers are seeing the recovery of native grasses and wildflowers from an existing, viable seed bank within the areas’ soils.
You can’t see the Scherers’ sand prairie from the main road. But down their lane, a swath of white-tufted splitbeard bluestem sweeps into view.
“This is really more of a sand savanna, but it is part of a larger, historic sand prairie matrix,” said Bruce Henry, MDC natural history biologist. He and Private Land Conservationist Brad Pobst help manage the Scherers’ remnant sand prairie acres.
The swath of native prairie flows into an open stand of gnarled oaks and scattered thickets of plum, sumac, and cactus.
“My dad bought the first 80 acres in 1941,” Charles Scherer said. “He was conservation-minded. The land was run-down after the Depression in the 1930s and had sand dunes all over. Dad bought it for less than $5 an acre.”
In 1962, Scherer bought another 80 acres of adjoining sand prairie, bringing the total to 160 acres. The oldest of 11 children, Scherer and Rose Ann also have 11 children.
They often host big family gatherings at their place where their children and 27 grandchildren come to camp, enjoy each other’s company, and explore their sand savanna.
“We love nature,” Scherer said. He has built several trails on the land and notes that they often see deer, turkey, and quail.
“I think about my dad all the time,” Scherer said. “I wouldn’t have this place without him.”
Thanks to Charles and Rose Ann, their family will have this historic remnant of sand savanna to enjoy for generations to come. Their dedication to conservation also benefits the state as a whole.
“Since the vast majority of the lands in Missouri are held in private ownership, working with great landowners like Charlie is the key to broad-scale conservation success,” said Henry. “MDC staff have theexpertise to maximize conservation efforts on a given property, but without the interest of willing landowners like the Scherers, these efforts would go unrealized.”
On the Scherer property and across the two-county Sand Ridge Conservation Opportunity Area, the focus is habitat management and natural community restoration.
Annual prescribed fire and invasive species control are basic practices that provide a diversity of native plants and habitat for both game and nongame wildlife. In addition to habitat management, Henry has set up traps to study the various species of reptiles and amphibians that call these sands home.
Regional staff complete surveys for the rare Illinois chorus frog every 10 years.
Last August, the Conservationist launched a six-part exploration of Missouri’s natural communities and efforts to conserve them. We started with karst habitat and continued through forests, wetlands, rivers and streams, and glades. This month, we end with grasslands and prairies. Throughout the series, natural history information came from the Missouri State Wildlife Action Plan. This document provides a habitat-management roadmap for MDC staff and partners. The Plan’s basic terrestrial natural community classifications and descriptions are generalizations from those Paul W. Nelson described in The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri in 2010. The aquatic natural community classifications and descriptions are adopted primarily from The Fishes of Missouri, authored by William L. Pflieger in 1997. Thanks to the many partners and staff who informed the Plan and this series.
Grassland, Prairie, and Savanna
Before settlement, approximately 15 million acres of prairie and 6 million acres of savanna covered one-third of Missouri’s landscape. Today, only fragments of our state’s six original grassland subtypes remain. MDC and its partners are focusing grassland conservation efforts on locations shown on the map.
- Deep-soiled loess hill prairies parallel the Missouri river in the far northwestern portion of the state.
- Glaciated prairies, though once common across the northern third of the state, today are only interspersed in northern Missouri.
- Drier, shallow-soiled unglaciated prairies are characteristic of the Osage Plains region.
- Small remnants of sand prairies can be found in Missouri’s far southeastern Bootheel and along the Mississippi River.
- Just a handful of savanna landscapes remain where prairies transition into woodland.
- Wet prairies can still be found along a few of Missouri’s rivers.
Visit Missouri’s Public Prairies
It’s hard to appreciate the beauty and diversity of Missouri’s native grasslands unless you’ve experienced them. Missouri has several public prairies you can visit and explore. To browse prairies in Missouri’s natural areas system, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/ZwX.
Plants and Animals of Greatest Conservation
- Topeka shiner
- Illinois chorus frog
- Western foxsnake
- Franklin’s ground squirrel
- Plains box turtle
Dig into the details about Missouri’s grasslands, prairies, and savannas at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zwj.