Conserving At-Risk Species

By Dennis Figg | January 31, 2011
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 2011

People like to hear stories about how rich the land was prior to settlement. We marvel at the great populations of plants and animals that lived in our forests, prairies, rivers and streams. So much of the history of wildlife conservation is the story of abundance.

Flocks of passenger pigeons along the Mississippi River Valley grew so large they filled the sky with a continuous stream of birds for several days. Wintering prairie-chicken flocks on the high ridges of north Missouri were so numerous they appeared to stand shoulder to shoulder as far as a person could see. Wild turkeys were “too abundant to be worthy of mention.” Photos and news stories from river towns like Hermann documented the “monster catfish” that lived in the Missouri River.

But the stories of abundance are mostly history. The lands and waters witnessed by Lewis and Clark have changed and continue to change.

Passenger pigeons are now gone—extinct. Elk had been eliminated from Missouri by the 1860s—extirpated. Greater prairie-chicken populations in Missouri have dwindled to a few hundred individuals—endangered.

A Changing World

Everyday the world around us is less and less wildlife friendly. Robins and white-tailed deer have proven adaptable and common. Although some species have readily adapted to people and life in a world that is less wild, most plants and animals have not, and are not expected to thrive. Many plants and animals are simply not that adaptable.

The challenge that lies ahead for Missouri citizens and the Department is how, and where, to conserve a representation of fish and wildlife diversity in a dramatically changing world. That is why one of the strategic goals of the Missouri Department of Conservation is “Conserving Plants, Animals and their Habitats.” Plants and animals that are extinct cannot be restored. But it is not too late for many extirpated species—species that are gone from Missouri but still live elsewhere.

“Recovery” for extirpated species is almost never a plan to restore these species to their former range and restore them to former abundance. Restoration for many species is to support small populations in the best places for success, preventing the need for listing them as endangered. Elk, for example, were once found throughout Missouri prior to European settlement. Historical accounts indicate elk were likely extirpated from the state by 1865. In October 2010 the Conservation Commission approved a plan to bring as many as 150 elk to a defined restoration zone in parts of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties.

Sustaining and Restoring Species

Preventing plants and animals from becoming extirpated and restoring some species back to Missouri are both important tasks with broad public support. The recovery of the bald eagle is one of the most successful and well-known stories. Bald eagles declined because of indiscriminate killing and environmental issues. While they remained common in Alaska, nesting populations were extirpated from much of the lower 48 states, including Missouri. Environmental regulation in the 1960s that improved water quality and removed dangerous chemicals from the environment, as well as law enforcement directed at people who killed eagles illegally, were both part of the solution. Restoration by Department staff, with support from the public, recovered this bird in Missouri. Eagles were nesting again in the 1980s and by the 1990s recovery was evident in Missouri. Today there are more than 150 active eagle nests in Missouri alone, and thousands of nests in the Midwest.

Not every species will recover as dramatically, and public support will often not be as high as for bald eagles. But Missourians are preventing other species from becoming extirpated, mostly through habitat restoration and directed management at specific places. One example is the prairie fringed orchid. There is little information about the abundance of this native orchid on the historic landscape, but a high percentage of the few tiny remaining prairie remnants in north Missouri still support a few plants. These scattered occurrences suggest that prairie fringed orchids were quite common across the tallgrass prairie landscape. The same changes on the land that contributed to the decline of prairie-chickens also affected plants, such as prairie fringed orchids, and fish, such as Topeka shiners.

Restoration of native species and their habitats remains an important task for fish and wildlife agencies, but the conservation objective may not be to return these species to former abundance, but to support them in smaller numbers in a few locations. Grasslands have changed. It seems unlikely that greater prairie-chickens or prairie fringed orchids will be restored to former abundance throughout their range, but it may be possible to keep small populations in priority places. Prairie streams have changed, but with our help Topeka shiners should persist in some of the remaining high quality streams in north Missouri.

Our Management Mission

The Department of Conservation emerged during an era of land abuse and declining fish and wildlife populations. Concerned citizens demanded a recovery of lands and waters that would again produce abundant fish and wildlife populations. Much of the land has indeed recovered, but that does not mean that all of the moving parts have returned, or returned in numbers that are sustainable. Not every plant and animal has a place to live and most lands and waters no longer have native species in abundance.

It is not accurate to say there is no place for native plants and animals on the modern landscape, but it is accurate to point out that the challenge to conserve wildlife diversity is huge. The conservation goal may not be to return them to their former glory, but to keep healthy populations in the best possible places. Fish and wildlife agencies of the future have to balance the ecological needs of fish and wildlife with the human-managed landscape and the concerns of people. Former abundance is not assurance of future abundance.

Habitat conservation is the best way to prevent species from declining so far that they become endangered and perhaps extirpated from Missouri. Habitat conservation does not ensure that every species will be abundant in the future, but it does provide a home for the diversity of life in Missouri. In turn, this diversity ensures healthier and more resilient habitats in a dynamically changing world.

  • Endangered is the official status of a species whose prospects for survival within the state are in immediate jeopardy.
  • Extirpated means the species formerly occurred in Missouri, but is not now known to exist within the state. Extirpated species still occur somewhere in their natural range outside of Missouri.
  • Extinct means the species no longer lives anywhere. The species has died out.

Conserving Plants, Animals and Their Habitats

Goal: The Conservation Department will work to increase the number of high-quality Missouri natural communities, including wetlands, prairies, forests, woodlands, cliffs, streams, grasslands, savannas, glades and caves.

What Missourians Tell Us

More than three-quarters of Missourians agree that “The Missouri Department of Conservation should make an effort to restore animals that once lived here or are currently very rare in Missouri” (79 percent) and that the Department “should conserve and restore rare and endangered plants” (79 percent).

Also In This Issue

prescribed burning
Using fire to revitalize plant and animal communities, protect our resources and benefit livestock.
fishing rod and reel
New regulations focus on creating convenient, quality outdoor experiences.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler