In most parts of Missouri, it’s common to see white-tailed deer, a flock of wild turkeys, or a pair of Canada geese. But not that long ago, they were quite rare in the Show-Me State.
Today, thanks to decades of public and private conservation efforts, deer, turkey, and many other kinds of native wildlife are secure and thriving.
Let’s take a closer look at seven critters we count as wins for conservation in Missouri.
1. White-Tailed Deer
In 1925, only about 400 deer remained in Missouri. Whitetails had been abundant in pre-settlement Missouri, but by the late 1800s, unregulated hunting and habitat destruction had depleted the herd. In 1937, the newly formed Conservation Commission made deer hunting illegal. In the following years, conservation agents brought in white-tailed deer from other states and relocated them from parts of Missouri with remnant populations. By 1944, the herd had grown to 15,000, and MDC held a two-day fork-horn, buck-only firearms season.
Over the years, landowners aided this recovery, working with MDC and other natural resource-management agencies to restore much-needed habitat.
In 2019, MDC celebrated 75 years of modern deer hunting. Today, over a million whitetails roam free in Missouri, and hunters commonly check more than 100,000 deer during the November firearms season alone.
While the whitetail is now secure on Missouri’s landscape, a new threat has emerged. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared in Missouri in 2012. Easily shared between deer, CWD is always fatal. Fortunately, MDC has one of the nation’s most effective CWDcontrol programs.
MDC has tested nearly 150,000 white-tailed deer for CWD. Annual sampling shows where the disease exists so we can limit its spread and effect on the deer population. Many landowners are also fighting CWD by participating in winter targeted culling after deer season closes.
“These efforts remove additional CWD-positive animals and slow the spread of the disease throughout the rest of the year,” said MDC Private Lands Deer Biologist Kevyn Wiskirchen.
2. Eastern Wild Turkey
When settlers came to Missouri, wild turkeys were so plentiful that homesteaders didn’t even bother raising domestic turkeys. But by 1937, people had killed all but about 2,500 of Missouri’s wild gobblers. To begin the process of restoring the state’s wild turkey population, MDC bought a large wild area deep in the Ozarks that would become the 23,761-acre Peck Ranch Conservation Area (CA).
In 1954, MDC staff started trapping and relocating turkeys from Peck Ranch CA. They also started raising wild turkeys. In the spring of 1960, Missouri launched a modern turkey-hunting season with a three-day season in 14 counties. Nearly 700 hunters bought permits, and they harvested 94 turkeys.
As former MDC Turkey Biologist Tom Dailey wrote in the April 2010 Conservationist, “Missouri’s environment was perfect for turkeys, and populations grew exponentially, with birds filling the many areas of good habitat and eventually moving into marginal habitat.”
Landowners eagerly helped with Missouri’s wild turkey restoration program, supporting MDC staff efforts to relocate and protect the wild birds around the state. Now, the eastern wild turkey is available, and often abundant, in every one of Missouri’s 114 counties.
The sound of Canada geese honking overhead can mean the beginning of spring or fall migration. But Missouri nearly lost the sounds of migrating geese and other waterfowl. One reason was the widespread loss of our continent’s wetlands. These are marshy places that geese and ducks need to survive. In 1989, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act provided funding for wetland restoration, encouraging people to restore their historic wetlands from Canada down through the U.S. and deep into Mexico. Breeding-habitat programs, which restore and/or protect wetlands and adjoining grassland habitat that are essential for nesting, also helped waterfowl grow their numbers.
Today, federal funds are available for wetland easements and improvements via the NRCS Agriculture Conservation Easement Program — Wetland Reserve Easements, the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. MDC also provides cost-share funds through the Landowner Assistance Program.
Thanks to these private and public efforts, hunters and birdwatchers alike flock to Missouri’s public wetlands, where millions of migrating ducks, geese, and shorebirds stop to feed and rest.
“These partnerships have been a tremendous boost for wetland resources in the state,” said MDC Wetland Services Biologist Mike McClure.
These big grazers are related to deer and moose, and they once roamed throughout most of North America. But by 1886, Missouri’s elk had disappeared into stewpots and local meat markets. Over the years, a few elk wandered in from other states like Kansas and Arkansas, but no herd ever took hold in the Show-Me State during the 20th century.
In 2011, MDC began a collaboration with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to move 108 elk to Missouri over a three-year period. The elk were released in the 346-square-mile restoration zone centered around Peck Ranch CA in Carter, Reynolds, and Shannon counties.
The following benchmarks were established to determine when an elk hunting season could be held: population of at least 200 elk; annual population growth rate of at least 10 percent; and a ratio of at least one bull to four cows. This fall, Missouri reached that benchmark and offered its first-ever regulated elk hunt, beginning with a nine-day archery season in October and a nine-day firearms season in December.
“The elk herd has settled into its new home in Missouri and is doing well,” said MDC Deer and Elk Biologist Aaron Hildreth. “We’re excited about having elk back on the landscape. We’re also looking forward to starting the tradition of elk hunting in Missouri.”
5. Bald Eagle
Did you know America adopted the bald eagle as its symbol in 1782? Sadly, this big bird of prey wasn’t strong enough to survive habitat loss and pesticides. Chemicals like DDT poisoned the bird’s food and weakened its eggs, making it nearly impossible for healthy chicks to hatch. In 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles left, the United States listed it as endangered, making it illegal to shoot the birds. In 1972, a ban on DDT helped improve nesting success.
Here in Missouri, MDC cooperated with USFWS and the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield to release 74 young bald eagles. From 1981 to 1990, the eaglets were obtained from captive breeding facilities or healthy wild populations and released in good nesting habitat at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Schell-Osage CA.
Thanks to many local efforts across the United States, the bald eagle started to recover nationally by the mid-1980s. As a result, the USFWS removed the bald eagle from the endangered species list on June 28, 2007. However, the bald eagle remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection acts, and it continues to be a species of conservation concern in Missouri.
“In recent years, we have seen an increase in the number of active bald eagle nests and as well as individuals reporting them,” said MDC Resource Scientist Janet Haslerig, who heads up Missouri’s bald eagle monitoring program. “In 2006, there were 123 active nests, and today we have approximately 500 active nests.” In part, Haslerig credits the increase in reports to Missouri’s citizen-science Eagle Watch Program, which she started in 2018 (see Nature Lab). To participate, email EagleWatch@mdc.mo.gov.
6. Black Bear
Missouri was once home to an abundant bear population. But by the early 1900s, habitat loss and unregulated harvest had driven bear numbers so low that people thought they were gone. Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reintroduced bears into their state. As Arkansas bear population grew, sightings became more common in Missouri. Over the last 50 years, Missouri’s bear population, which is connected to a larger population in Arkansas and Oklahoma, has grown and expanded in range. Bear sightings are now becoming more common north of I-44.
In 2010, MDC began an extensive bear study with research partners from New York and Mississippi, and it has continued through 2020. Over the course of this study, which will inform MDC’s black bear management for the foreseeable future, researchers were able to calculate how quickly Missouri’s bear population was growing.
“We determined that there were approximately 540–840 black bears in the state in 2019, and the population was growing at about 9 percent annually,” said Laura Conlee, MDC’s lead black bear researcher. “At this growth rate, the population would be expected to double in about 10 years.”
To learn more about black bears, MDC’s Black Bear Management Plan, being bear aware, and a potential future black bear hunting season, visit mdc.mo.gov/bears.
7. Peregrine Falcon
Like the bald eagle, this bird of prey disappeared from Missouri in the mid- 1900s — another victim of pesticides. Unlike the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon’s restoration story has depended more on human-made structures than on natural habitat, and in 1999, the USFWS removed it from the endangered species list.
“Peregrine falcons are attracted to skyscrapers and smoke stacks,” said MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Joe DeBold, who leads Missouri’s peregrine falcon restoration program. “These sites give them easy access to lots of pigeons, waterfowl, and other birds, which they hunt.”
Today, several nest boxes appear atop tall buildings or on smokestacks in Kansas City and St. Louis. In the past seven years, biologists have banded 196 young falcons hatched in those nests.
“Partnerships are the reason we can do this,” DeBold said. “Without our partners
like American Century Investments and Evergy in Kansas City and the World Bird
Sanctuary and Ameren Missouri in St. Louis, the nest sites would not be available.”
DeBold noted that two natural-habitat nest sites have been documented on the
Mississippi River bluffs on the Illinois side of the river.
“However,” he said, “at 14 pairs, we’ve got the highest population ever documented
A proposal for removing the bird from Missouri’s endangered species list is underway, “but we want to keep the peregrine listed as a species of conservation concern,” DeBold said.
Wildlife Restoration Pays
Periodic surveys show that 76% of Missourians support MDC’s efforts to restore animals that once lived or are currently very rare in the state. Missourians regularly vote for the hunting, angling, and other outdoor opportunities these efforts provide with their recreation dollars. Deer hunting, for example, generates more than $1 billion in economic activity annually. A 2016 study showed that elk related tourism generated over $1 million in economic activity, and wildlife watchers create an economic impact of $1.7 billion. Overall, hunting and fishing make an impact of $3 billion to Missouri’s economy every year.
The Habitat Connection
MDC has been working with public and private partners to restore our state’s missing or declining wildlife for more than 80 years.
“Although the peregrine falcon is an exception, where habitat has been restored in Missouri, wildlife restoration has generally followed,” said MDC Natural Community Ecologist Mike Leahy. “Especially tough cases are species like greater prairie-chickens that need large-scale, open native-grassland landscapes to survive and thrive.
“Others, like the collared lizard, for example, have done well in scattered pockets of glade and woodland restoration in the Ozarks,” Leahy said.
Going further into the 21st century, the Missouri State Wildlife Action Plan will help the state keep common species common while at the same time restoring species that used to live here and can thrive in smaller-scale natural communities.
Visit the Missouri State Wildlife Action Plan at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZqN.
Watch Falcon Cams
Keep tabs on the world’s fastest birds of prey as they raise their young. Visit the Kansas City and St. Louis web cameras at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZZJ.
Help Wildlife Where You Are
Follow these tips to protect and conserve wildlife where you live and recreate:
• Don’t litter, and help pick up litter when you hunt, hike, fish, or float. Discarded fishing line can tangle, strangle, and hang fishing birds like osprey, kingfishers, and eagles.
• Don’t dump your bait or unwanted aquarium pets. Releasing nonnative fish, frogs, and other critters into the water can hurt Missouri native fish.
• Make room for wildlife in your yard. Birds and butterflies need native flowers, shrubs, and trees. Frogs, toads, and turtles need a small wild area with some water, if possible. Cottontails will use a little, out-of- the way brush pile, and squirrels need nut-bearing trees like oaks, hickories, walnuts, and pecans.