Missouri's High Country

By | October 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2005

When seen from an airplane, much of the present-day Ozark landscape looks forested. Yet multitudes of trees do not necessarily add up to forests. The Ozark landscape is a complicated association of forests, woodlands, savannas, glades, cliffs, caves, springs, rivers, streams, sinkhole ponds and fens.

Though the Ozark Highlands region appears mountainous, it is really a broad plateau that has been cut, or dissected, by erosion.

The highest and least rugged parts of the Ozarks tend to be flat to gently rolling plains that formerly were covered with prairies, savannas and open woodlands. Near drainages, the plains give way to rolling hills and then to rugged, highly eroded hills that formerly supported oak-pine woodlands and forests.

Most Ozark streams are spring-fed and occupy narrow, twisting valleys. Erosion has cut through the layers of bedrock to create underground passages and caves. Many stream channels “lose” water to subterranean passageways, which resurfaces as springs or fens, or at the mouths of caves.

The plants and animals of the Ozarks are as diverse as the landscape. The slow process of erosion allows plenty of time for plants and animals to adapt and change. More than 200 endemic species are present in the Ozark Highlands.

Endemic species are those found only within a restricted geographic range. Some familiar species endemic to the Ozarks include the Niangua darter, Missouri bladderpod, the Neosho mucket, the Ozark cavefish, purple penstemon and the Missouri woodland swallowtail. triangle

Conservation Opportunity

Roaring River Conservation Opportunity Area is a land of rugged hills, deep hollows, a river that roars and hilltops with some of the largest glades in Missouri.

Glades are dry, rocky areas in the uplands of the Ozarks. They are home to animals and plants not typical to Missouri’s climate. Essentially deserts, glades provide habitat for roadrunners, scorpions, tarantulas and giant centipedes. The glades and woodlands also are home to characteristic Ozark species, such as collared lizards, painted buntings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, summer tanagers and fence lizards.

Many of these species are declining in number. Cedar trees now cover 95 percent of the former glade habitat and though hundreds of acres of glades and woodlands still exist, the fires that promoted essential plants and kept red cedars under control have been prevented in the past 100 years. The open, grassy glades and associated woodlands can be restored, but it will require removing many acres of cedar trees, as well as the use of prescribed fires.

Conservation Partnerships

Roaring River State Park, managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, is central to this conservation opportunity. Both the State Park and Mark Twain National Forest plan to increase management for glade and woodland wildlife in the decade ahead.

Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative

The Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative brings together organizations and agencies dedicated to bird conservation. Some of the 37 members are Audubon Missouri, the Audubon Society of Missouri, Ducks Unlimited, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, the Missouri Falconry Association, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Unlimited, the Ruff ed Grouse Society, Webster Groves Nature Study Society and several governmental agencies.

The Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative helps disperse funds to organizations willing to develop and manage bird habitat on private and public lands. The emphasis is on cooperative bird habitat projects involving several organizations and grassroots citizen participation working together.

LaBarque Creek


Invasive Autumn Olive

Sunklands Natural Area

LaBarque Creek

High in the Ozark uplands of the Meramec River basin is a 13-square-mile, nearly pristine watershed called LaBarque Creek. The creek has carved cliffs, waterfalls, bowls and overhangs in the soft sandstone. The resulting deep, moist canyons and ravines contain several plants found at only a few other sites in Missouri.

LaBarque Creek provides more than 6 miles of permanently flowing stream that supports 36 species of fish, including rock bass and green sunfish.

The low level of disturbance in the watershed means the fish and wildlife diversity of the stream remains healthy. This aquatic diversity is close to the St. Louis area, making this watershed an excellent candidate for strategic conservation action.

Invasive Autumn Olive

The shrub autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an exotic invasive plant in the Ozark Highlands. It is native to China, Japan and Korea, but it was planted in the United States as early as 1830. It has been widely planted in Missouri since the 1960s for wildlife food and cover, as screens and windbreaks and for mine reclamation.

The plant’s fleshy fruits are relished by birds, which disperse the seeds from planting sites into the surrounding countryside. Today, autumn olive is most abundant in old fields, pastures and roadsides, but it can also invade open woodlands and prairies. It will spread at the expense of native shrubs and other native vegetation and, once established, is very difficult to control. Cutting and applying herbicide is the most effective management option.

Sunklands Natural Area

The Sunklands Natural Area occurs in a remote part of the Ozark Highlands. Nearly a mile long, the Sunklands sinkhole complex is the longest karst valley in Missouri. Typical features of karst areas include deep sinkholes, caves, springs and streams that flow underground.

Within the Sunklands, a dry sinkhole called the Devil’s Den is about 200 feet deep. A rocky forest filled with mosses and ferns grows on the bottom. Big Yuccapin Basin is a shallow, wet sink with a pond marsh that has a floating mat of grasses, sedges and shrubby vegetation. Little Yuccapin Basin is mostly dry and almost completely forested, but it contains a 1-acre shrub swamp. Pulltite Spring is also included in this natural area.

The oaks that now dominate the woodlands are being thinned to allow light-loving pine seedlings to become established and to let more grasses and forbs grow on the woodland floor. Shortleaf pine was once the primary tree species in this area, but was cut heavily at the turn of the century.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler