Visit MDC conservation areas to experience Missouri 200 years ago

News from the region
Kansas City
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Kansas City, Mo. – Only remnants and restorations remain from what were once wildlife-filled ecosystems overlapping in a collage demarked by rivers and streams. Public lands nurtured by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and thoughtful management by private landowners save them. They are places where visitors can walk or paddle through nature’s original hue and enjoy an outdoors experience a person could have had on Aug. 10, 1821, when Missouri became the nation’s 24th state.

Visiting MDC conservation areas is a sensory-filled way to celebrate the state’s bicentennial year. But a person must visit a wide variety of places to fully understand how varied the uplands, lowlands, and wetlands were in western Missouri two centuries ago.

Ancient paths made by Native Americans, deer, elk, black bears, and bison once reached from riverbanks uphill through timber, scattered woodlands, and across high prairies. Then from the 1500s onward Spanish, French, and English footprints and the hoof prints of their horses marked those trails. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition paddled back downstream on the Missouri River in 1806, at the end of their epic two-year trek to the Pacific and back, they met explorers and trappers paddling upstream to tap natural resources. Slow change on the land soon became faster.

By the end of that century the Industrial Age was running full steam ahead. On Aug. 10, 1921, bison and elk were long gone from the state. Deer, black bears, and wild turkeys were scarce and gone from most counties due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Yet, as Aug. 10, 2021 dawned, science-based conservation had restored deer and turkeys statewide, protected streams, established havens for non-game wildlife and sport fisheries in lakes. Although, changes in land use continue to bring challenges.

Prairie-chickens are almost extirpated from the state and bobwhite quail are in a steep decline due to a scarcity of usable native grassland habitat. Various songbirds and pollinator insects are imperiled. Missourians value nature, but they face new challenges in conserving and incorporating natural systems into modern land practices that area both sustainable and productive.

Still, citizen support for conservation and 84 years of work by MDC and partners has created a base for the next century’s conservationists to build upon _ including conservation areas that are fun to visit in a bicentennial year.

Natural places to visit in the Kansas City and northwest regions:

  • Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie and Taberville Prairie conservation areas north of El Dorado Springs in St. Clair County. They hold good examples of remnant and restored native grasslands with open vistas across rolling hills. Prairies are best experienced by hiking. What they look like depends on the season, weather, and recent beneficial management practices such as prescribed burns, grazing, and haying. But raptors and songbirds are seen in all seasons, wildflowers bloom from spring into fall, and tall green grasses turn golden in autumn. Be prepared, a prairie that is easy to walk upon in winter may be so luxuriant with growth in late summer that a hiker must push through. Wah’Kon-Tah is managed in a partnership with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as centerpieces of the Upper Osage Grasslands priority geography. and
  • MDC’s Pawnee Prairie and TNC’s Dunn Ranch Prairie in Harrison County west of Bethany. Dunn Ranch has a bison herd on remnant and restored prairie. Fenced tracts where the bison are not grazing are open to hiking. Pawnee Prairie is an unplowed remnant with a rich mix of wildflowers and grasses. Together they form the nucleus of the Grand River Grasslands, a public and private partnership that extends into Iowa. and
  • Bluffwoods Conservation Area south of St. Joseph in Buchanan County. A diverse oak-hickory forest bordering the Missouri River bottoms. Creeks have notched deep valleys in the bluffs facing the river. Be prepared to walk uphill and downhill.
  • Big Buffalo Creek Conservation Area southeast of Cole Camp in Benton and Morgan counties. A clear, cool, Ozark stream of normally shallow depth running through hilly forest and woodlands. Hike the trails and service roads or go cross country. Area includes a natural fen watered by a spring.
  • Cooley Lake Conservation Area east of Liberty in Clay County. On the eastern end of a wooded ridge overlooking an oxbow lake is a good example of a woodland, large trees surrounded by openings with native grasses and wildflowers. This and savannas _ isolated trees with larger open grasslands _ were originally found throughout much of the state. A parking lot off Ridge Road is a trailhead for a path leading to the woodland. Cooley Lake is named for an old oxbow lake that is now a wetland, and the area also has boating and fishing access to the Missouri River.
  • Little Bean Marsh Conservation Area. Large wetlands, bottomland forests, and wet prairies once lined the Missouri River’s winding, braided channels. Little Bean is a rare, high-quality wetland remnant in what was once Missouri River channel. A parking lot is trailhead for a paved trail back to the largest wetland on the area.
  • August A. Busch Jr. Memorial Wetlands at Four Rivers Conservation Area. Some of the largest wetlands in western Missouri were in the Osage River drainage basin. Four Rivers includes remnant and managed wetlands and bottomland forest. The area is a good birding spot year-round. It attracts major migrations of waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds.
  • The Missouri River drains much of the western United States and it was a dominate trade route early trade in the state’s history. The river is channelized and altered for barge traffic. But when standing on its banks or floating in a canoe or kayak, the currents and broad scenery remain impressive and interesting. MDC and partners manage several river accesses for boating and fishing in both the northwest and Kansas City regions. To find a public river access near you, visit

These are but a few of the conservation areas and river accesses that preserve and protect Missouri’s natural history. They offer new sights and sounds as the seasons change. For more information, visit