The Rite of Prairie Passage

“. . . less than 1/10th of 1 percent of Missouri’s nearly six million hectares of presettlement tallgrass prairie remains today.”

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Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), on the campus of Missouri Southern State University’s native “prairie land.” A small portion (14 ac.) of this remnant tract was set aside, thanks in small part to the author’s unrelenting passion for preserving the site. Joplin, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Hello again… and welcome in!

This Zero528 blog entry considers the tallgrass prairies of West-Central/Southwestern Missouri and the perilous time signifying the period during which their demise began – their composition impacted, their form altered, and their existence nearly eliminated.

It is my intention to spark interest in and create awareness of, the tallgrass prairies in North America. However, it is beyond the scope of this blog to delve too deep on the topic.

Holistic overview

The tallgrass prairie ecosystem is widely considered one of the most diverse and yet most endangered terrestrial ecosystems in North America. Many conservation efforts are being conducted to save, improve, and restore portions of remaining tallgrass prairie across its original range.

The demise of North American prairie grasslands began approximately 150 years ago with cattle replacing millions of native grazing mammals followed by the conversion of most tallgrass prairie to tilled crops (Samson and Knopf, 1994). Surely more answers exist which explain this unfortunate occurrence.

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Bison (Bison bison), resting on the native tallgrass prairie of Prairie State Park near Liberal, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Missouri

Presettlement tallgrass prairies once covered 26.7% (47,663 km2) of the state of Missouri (Schroeder, 1983; C. Davit, Missouri Prairie Foundation, pers. comm.). Of the nearly 6 million hectares of tallgrass prairies, less than 1/10th of 1% remains today (C. Davit, pers. comm.).

Missouri’s premium tallgrass prairie region was historically the West-Central region (Schroeder, 1983). This region, situated along the central-eastern edge of the Great Plains south of the Missouri River and west of the Ozarks, was significantly impacted and severely threatened by those who sought to extend the range of the western edge of the American frontier.

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I had the fortunate opportunity during the spring of my senior year at MSSU, to monitor greater prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) via radiotelemetry on Wah’Kon-Tah prairie near El Dorado Springs, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

The highest percentage of prairie of any Missouri County was Barton County (86%) with Bates and Vernon Counties each containing 78% and 73%, respectively (Schroeder, 1983). This region currently represents the largest remaining area of native grasslands within the state.

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Located on Prairie State Park, Regal Tallgrass Prairie Natural Area was the site of my Master of Science research project – Influence of vegetation structure on density of northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) on a tallgrass prairie in southwestern Missouri. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Remembering the Past

Contemplate the timely exhibitions of the various blooming prairie wildflowers, which fortunately can still be witnessed, albeit on a much less grand scale.

A diverse abundance of big-game animals once roamed the grasslands unimpeded  – imagine immense herds of bison (Bison bison) thundering across the prairie, Elk (Cervus elaphus) grazing nutritious grasses, and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) browsing forbs (non-woody flowering plants) at will.

Listen for echoes of the seemingly innumerable greater prairie-chickens  (Tympanuchus cupido) “booming” upon their leks and recall the exploits of French missionaries and traders and their influence on the Osage Indians of the region.

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Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), peeking at the horizon line on Penn-Sylvania Prairie in Dade County Missouri. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Recollect the terrors inflicted upon civilians by the infamous Quantrill guerrillas that patrolled with a vengeance along the western border of Missouri. Consider legendary bushwhacker outlaws including Jesse and Frank James and lawless bank robbers of the area such as the Doolin-Dalton Gang.

The Rite of Prairie Passage and the Point of No-Return

As a quail biologist/ecologist and Missouri history enthusiast (among other things), natural curiosity found me pondering the point of no-return conditions (cultural, social, environmental, etc.) marking the transition of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in Missouri –  from its dominance to its near disappearance.

The Perfect Storm

My research indicates the culprits responsible for the downfall of the tallgrass prairies in West-Central/Southwestern Missouri, consisted of an extensive list of fortuitous occurrences. These events occurred cumulatively at an accelerated rate and spanned the time period near the dawn of the Civil War through the post-war era. A tumultuous time to be sure.

As pioneers (mostly European immigrants) pushed the boundaries of the frontier and found their little piece of the green earth, they began to keep a written account of their lives and those events happening around them and to them in West-Central/Southwestern Missouri.

In addition, as they traversed from county to county, early Missouri land surveyors logged their visual accounts of the differences in the landscape and varieties of wildlife species encountered.

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Somewhere on The Great Plains. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Therefore, written historical accounts provide insight into factors which cannot be discounted as potentially having deleterious effects on the tallgrass prairies of the region – the relocation of its native caretakers, the conquering spirit of the individuals who settled them, the invention of tools that broke them, the laws enacted that limited their management, the expansion of the railroad which fragmented them, the contentious livestock controversies which altered them, and the turbulent Civil War times that produced rugged vigilantes who gallivanted across them.

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Hereford cattle grazing in Oklahoma. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Moreover, these events were happening simultaneously and were set against the backdrop of a fire control law (burn ban), human population explosion, increased grazing pressure, cultivation of hay, invention of barbed-wire fence, martial law, lawlessness, bushwhacker violence, guerrilla warfare, oaths of Union loyalty, and Southern sympathy.

It is likely that small-scale farming by the settlers, which fragmented the landscape – coupled with the laundry list of other forces and influences noted above -had perhaps already begun to take its toll.

These combined events created the perfect storm of conditions which sparked the subsequent downward spiral of the tallgrass prairie and the habitat it provides to a host of wildlife species.

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Dickcissel (Spiza americana) male calling to a prospective mate on Prairie State Park near Liberal, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

My research describing how, when, and why the tallgrass prairie has all but disappeared in Missouri, is strengthened and formed in part through critical examination of historical records vividly describing the lives of the aforementioned pioneers who braved the western edge of civilization amidst the volatile events occurring during the mid-nineteenth century.

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Gaining momentum on my proposed signed “Prairie Passage” Auto-Tour Route for the West-Central/Southwestern region. This passage (auto-tour route) would link the highest concentration of remaining native prairie tracts within Missouri, all of which offer free public access. Image © 2016 R.L. Peterson

21st Century and Beyond

Today, only a fragment of the North American tallgrass prairies remain. In the name of conservation, preservation, and restoration, it is imperative that this precious resource, and the ecological linkages which rely on it, be protected as much as possible.

Visit the Missouri Prairie Foundation to discover how to actively participate in discovering, and helping save, Missouri’s native prairies. Additionally, visit GrowNative to ascertain information about supporting biodiversity on the local level.

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Prairie State Park (Missouri) celebrates a biennial Prairie Jubilee – a festive event for the entire family. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson.

The call is to anyone and everyone to enjoy this resource. So, don’t delay – grab a pair of binoculars, hiking boots, backpack, and/or Brooks running gear and hit the trail of a native prairie nearby. As the seasons change, so do the prairie scenes…fascinatingly beautiful.

Keep a good thought! Bob P.

SIDE NOTE: In my opinion, managing for biodiversity is key to proper prairie management. Under carefully monitored conditions and with a proper burn plan in place, fire can be an effective management tool – with the objectives being to suppress woody encroachment and to create a heterogeneous landscape necessary to support biodiversity.

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Conducting a prescribed burning exercise while interning at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Fire suppression has occurred historically as a result of liability concerns and recently, due to severe drought conditions. For information on prescribed burning and other upland management tools, visit Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation.

All photos and images © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Literature cited:

Samson, F., and F. Knopf. 1994. Prairie conservation in North America. Bioscience 44:418-421.

Schroeder, W. A. 1983. Presettlement prairie of Missouri, second edition. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City.