Missouri’s Incredible Natural Communities

By Photographs by David Stonner | May 1, 2023
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2023
Ozark Forest
Missouri’s Incredible Natural Communities

Missouri is home to all sorts of native plants and animals. For example, did you know that there are more species of native plants in Missouri than in all of Alaska? Or that we have three times the number of native reptile species than in Montana? And our thousands of miles of streams support the nation’s ninth most diverse fish population.

As conservationists, we strive to keep populations of all these species healthy — keeping the common species common and recovering those that are rare and declining. The key to maintaining this great diversity is to protect, conserve, restore, and, in some cases, reconstruct the habitats that our native flora and fauna require. 

Throughout the state we find that recurring patterns of local climate, soils, topography, and geology support similar groups of plant and animal species. We call these assemblages “natural communities,” and in Missouri, conservation professionals and private citizens work to manage native grasslands (prairies and savannas), glades, forests, woodlands, streams and springs, wetlands, and caves. These major types of natural communities can be further subdivided into more specific types, such as a mesic (moist but not wet) bottomland forest. Natural communities are the lands and waters that support habitat specialists such as darters, gentians, and warblers.

In this article, different subject experts describe these natural communities and examples of work that MDC, partners, and private landowners and citizen conservationists are doing to restore and manage these areas for a variety of benefits. There are multiple phases to this work, which, regardless of public or private ownership, require developing a solid plan. Early phases of implementing the plan require patience as the area may not look the way users expect. But rest assured the messy, rough look is an anticipated and important step toward a healthier and more functional natural community. As the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in Round River, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” And the way we Missourians can keep all the native flora and fauna we’ve inherited (otherwise known as Leopold’s “cogs and wheels”) is to conserve the natural communities of our state for future generations to learn about and enjoy.

Native Grasslands (Prairies/Savannas)

by Frank Loncarich and Tom Thompson

Native prairies and open savannas are grasslands with a high diversity of plants and few trees. Into the early 1800s, these native grasslands covered about 15 million acres in Missouri.  Now, only an estimated 45,000 acres (less than one half of one percent) remain unconverted to other land uses, of which about half is formally protected and managed by conservation organizations, and the other half is owned and managed by private landowners. The acres that do remain are scattered, small, and disconnected, but incredibly important. Some of Missouri’s most imperiled plant and animal species make their home on native prairies and savannas, including grassland songbirds, which is one of North America’s fastest declining guilds of birds. Missouri native grasslands need all our help, and protecting the remaining prairies and savannas and restoring native grasslands to places they once occurred is a critical step in the process of preserving Missouri’s rich biodiversity.

Prairies and savannas developed under an environment of frequent fire, and, in modern conservation, prescribed (controlled) fire is one of the best ways to maintain and enhance prairie biodiversity. MDC staff burn thousands of acres of prairie on conservation areas annually and provide technical assistance to private prairie landowners interested in burning. Prescribed fire also helps control invading tree species that don’t belong on grasslands but have appeared after years with no fire.

Another key component in native grassland conservation is a management practice called prairie reconstruction. This practice involves identifying areas that were historically native prairie but converted to a different use and planting a highly diverse mix of native prairie plants on these sites. Once these plants are established, they are managed like a native prairie with fire and sometimes light grazing. MDC staff at Shawnee Trail Conservation Area (CA) in Barton County have restored over 1,500 acres of diverse prairie reconstructions over the last decade. They have also removed invading, undesirable trees from draws and fence rows and started a prescribed burning and conservation grazing program. 

“The prairie reconstruction projects have transformed this once highly agricultural area back into large grasslands that approximate the native prairie that once existed there, supporting habitat for prairie plants and a host of prairie pollinators and birds, especially wintering short-eared owls and northern harriers,” said MDC Wildlife Management Biologist Warren Sharp, Shawnee Trail CA manager.

Remnant prairies and savannas, along with prairie reconstructions, also build soil, store carbon, prevent erosion, increase stormwater infiltration, and assist with regulating stream flow and water quality.


by Susan Farrington and Mike Leahy

Glades are dry and sunny openings in woodlands with shallow soil and bedrock very close to the surface. It takes tough plants and animals to live on a glade, and some wildlife usually associated with deserts are right at home, including tarantulas and scorpions. Glades feature a rich variety of native grasses and wildflowers, which in turn support an abundance of birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Turkeys love to nest at the shrubby edge of a glade, feeding on grasshoppers in the open grass. Deer use glades for cover in the high grass, particularly to hide their fawns.

Historically, glades were kept open by fire caused both by lightning strikes during severe drought years and fires set by Native Americans and early settlers. Modern fire suppression allows aggressive native red cedar to colonize and shade out desirable wildflowers and grasses. A cedar thicket provides protection from the wind, but it provides very little wildlife food and diversity.

To restore a glade, MDC staff cut and remove cedar trees. If the cedars are large enough, the logs can be sold commercially. A prescribed fire following cedar removal rejuvenates the glade and wildflowers will often flourish within a few short years. Generally, no seeding is required — the seeds and native plants are still there waiting to see the sun. Before introducing fire, staff prefer to burn the cedar slash in piles in damp or snowy weather. This reduces the very volatile slash that otherwise would result in a fire hot enough to scorch soils and potentially kill the old oak trees that belong on a glade. Prescribed fire approximately every two to five years helps to maintain our amazing Missouri glades.


by Rich Blatz, Brad Graham, and Mike Leahy

Forests are one of Missouri’s most important and valuable resources. More than 15 million acres of forest and woodlands cover Missouri’s landscape. Missouri’s forests play a critical role in protecting water quality, storing carbon, producing oxygen, maintaining soil productivity, supporting a vibrant forest products and tourism industry, and promoting biological diversity. An extensive list of plants and animal species depend on Missouri’s forests as their primary habitat. These include, but are not limited to, endangered bats, neotropical migrant birds, unique amphibians, and, of course, deer and turkey.

A mature forest is dominated by trees forming a closed canopy of multiple overlapping layers called the overstory, midstory, and understory. The overstory is comprised of large trees that create the canopy. The midstory is often dominated by smaller trees and large shrubs. The understory is comprised of tree seedlings, grasses, wildflowers, and other low growing vegetation.

Forested landscapes should be constantly shifting, transitioning between seedling and sapling stages to mid-sized stages to mature trees. To maintain a healthy and sustainable forest landscape, 10 percent should be in regeneration (young seedlings), 30 percent in sapling sized trees, 35 percent in mid-sized trees, and 25 percent in large trees.

MDC has great examples of sustainable forest management throughout the state. In the northeastern part of the state, on Deer Ridge CA, forest management is designed to improve habitat for the endangered Indiana bat. In the Ozarks, on multiple conservation areas, forest management focuses on sustainable production of oaks that provide benefits for several wildlife species, including declining forest songbirds that require early successional forest and/or canopy gaps. In the deforested Mississippi River lowlands of southeast Missouri, multiple sites have been planted back into mixes of bottomland hardwood species and other floodplain forest trees to restore Missouri’s highly imperiled bottomland forest habitat.


by Mike Leahy

Across Missouri, but especially in the Ozarks on dry ridges and south- and west-facing slopes dominated by mixtures of oaks (especially post oak), hickories, and sometimes shortleaf pine, occur woodland natural communities. A mixture of droughty soils and periodic wildland fires created scenes such as this described by H.R. Schoolcraft in 1819 in the upper Meramec River region: “… a succession of hills of moderate elevation, covered chiefly by oaks and without underbrush. A tall, thick, and rank growth of wild grass covers the whole country, in which the oaks are standing interspersed …”

Woodlands are fire-adapted communities that often occur in association with glades (described on Page 14). In the absence of periodic fires, woodland sites, like glades and prairies, stagnate and become overtaken by undesirable woody plant growth that shades out the herbaceous plants. In contrast, restored woodlands are characterized by a variety of native grasses and especially blooming wildflowers in the understory. These wildflowers — mainly asters, sunflowers, and legumes — provide abundant nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. Caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other insects feed on these herbaceous plants and in turn provide important food for migratory songbirds and turkey poults. Woodland restoration typically involves a combination of prescribed fire and tree thinning.

Some of MDC’s earliest woodland restoration occurred in conjunction with glade restoration at Caney Mountain and Stegall Mountain natural areas in the Ozarks. Today the department is actively restoring woodlands statewide, including a large woodland and glade mosaic at Lead Mine CA leading to the expansion of the Niangua River Hills designated state natural area there.

Rivers and Streams

by Brian Todd and Sherry Fischer

Missouri’s more than 110,000 miles of streams are the lifeblood of our landscapes. The water coursing through our streams reflects our past decisions and foreshadows our future. Stream systems don’t have finite boundaries. The landscapes they flow through are called watersheds — all the land areas that contribute water, sediment, and nutrient runoff to the stream system. As such, everything we do on the landscape has an effect on stream life, water quality, and habitat. MDC works with landowners and many other partners to help ensure comprehensive and science-based stream and watershed management.

Stream restoration often involves incorporating best management practices throughout the watershed, which are actions that can reduce erosion and nutrient input, making stream systems healthier and more resilient. Streams that have areas of erosion, for example, may be suitable for stabilization practices like planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers.

Because streams are linear and connect all components of the landscape, the system must be investigated to determine what types of management and restoration practices are appropriate and where to place them. Streams naturally move and change over time and that must also be taken into consideration when diagnosing the cause of the problem and prescribing restoration and watershed practices. Ideally, stream restoration methods allow for natural changes to continue to occur but at more acceptable rates.


by Frank Nelson and Arianne Messerman

Wetlands are transition zones between land and water-based environments. Historically, natural wetlands dominated the floodplains and river deltas in Missouri. Over the past 150 years, many were converted to agricultural and commercial land. Wetlands provide incredible services, including acting as sponges to reduce flood severity and filter pollutants, carbon sequestration, recreational opportunities, and hosting a tremendous diversity of native plants and animals. As such, much like our native prairies and savannas, it is important to preserve our few remaining natural wetlands and restore and reconstruct degraded wetlands wherever possible.

Wetlands include seasonal, emergent marsh, shrub-scrub, forested swamp, fens, and seeps. It may be surprising that wetlands benefit from occasional drying. In fact, the 2022 drought will have ripple effects leading to positive changes. One ripple started when mud flats were exposed, stimulating the germination of annual plants like millet and smartweed. Wetland management often simulates this process by seasonally drawing water down to foster seed production. As natural dry conditions extended through the fall, only songbirds could access this wild grain and the bug-filled grasses and forbs. Additionally, many seeds were “stored” in the absence of autumn floods. When spring rains inundate these stores, a bounty of seeds and bugs will be available to fuel a broad diversity of birds as they migrate north.

Still other ripples began when wetland communities were “reset” through drying, supporting greater biodiversity through time. For example, the temporary elimination of aquatic predators, like fish, when wetlands dry can allow different animals, like amphibians, to flourish when wetlands refill. Dry conditions and a hard freeze can also knock back invasive plants by damaging the roots of hardy floating-leaved species, like American lotus. Further, droughts provide opportunities for MDC’s wetland managers to help with these resets. The 2022 drought enabled managers at Otter Slough CA to drain Otter Lake for the first time in 20 years. Once the soppy wetland soils hardened, contractors were able to enter the wetland with heavy machinery and mulch many of the willows that had begun choking the basin. Aquatic life will return and have more room to thrive when the drought subsides and the lake refills. MDC managers at other wetlands were similarly able to conduct large-scale vegetation management and make progress on construction projects. As water returns to Missouri’s wetlands, we look forward to watching the beautiful ripples of last year’s drought unfurl.


by Rhonda Rimer and Shelly Colatskie

Of Missouri’s natural communities, caves seem the most alien, hosting just as alien-looking creatures, some found nowhere else on earth. At present, over 7,500 caves are known in Missouri.

Like a snowflake, each cave is unique. Caves vary in their geologic composition, size, diversity of creatures, difficulty to explore, variety of cave formations, and diversity of cave life. Some caves are completely barren of formations, others are extravagantly adorned. Missouri’s caves host over 1,100 known species, including the federally endangered gray bat. Guano from gray and other bat species provides nutrients that benefit other cave life, like grotto salamanders, cave adapted springtails, rove beetles, cave adapted millipedes, and pseudoscorpions.

With some Missouri cave species under threat, protecting caves and cave life is more important than ever. MDC, the Cave Research Foundation, Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy, Missouri Speleological Survey, grotto groups, and other caving organizations have long worked to survey, map, and protect caves and the species that live within or utilize them. This has included restorations to remove graffiti and trash from caves that have been vandalized. In addition, MDC and other partners have helped private landowners install cave gates. While it isn’t necessary to gate every cave, some caves benefit from a gate to protect sensitive species and habitat and for human safety. The most recent gating project in Missouri, on private land in the Little Niangua River watershed, drew volunteers from across the state who love caves and wanted to be a part of protecting them. 

Caves should only be accessed through landowner permission and always remember the caver’s motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”


Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler