Conservation effort has come a long way in Missouri

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Missouri is situated at a diverse ecological crossroads, where millions of acres of eastern hardwood meet up with southern pine forest. Swamps and sand prairies in southeast Missouri butt against rare karst (cave/spring) communities. Springfed Ozark rivers cut through stunning limestone cliffs.

Less than 200 years ago, Missouri was about one-third prairie, one-third savanna and one-third forest. Today, less than 1 percent of those original prairies and savannas remain.

The American bison, elk, passenger pigeons and timberwolves called Missouri home. So did white-tailed deer, beaver, otters, turkey, quail, black bears, mountain lions, and red and gray foxes. Today, members of that first group don't live here anymore. Between 1850 and 1930, those species were extirpated from the state.

Unregulated market hunting severely reduced the number of many other species, including deer, turkey, squirrel, muskrat, beaver, mink, raccoon, bobcat, mountain lion, prairie chicken, otter, badger, whooping cranes, trumpeter and whistling swans, and lake sturgeon and paddlefish.

The first game law in the state passed in 1851. It applied only to St. Louis County. The first statewide game law passed in 1874. It established hunting seasons for a few game species and prohibited selling and purchasing of wildlife not in season. Enforcement was assigned to constables, police officers and market masters.

Market hunters paid no attention to the law. In 1885, the State Fish Commission identified St. Louis as the country's largest game market.

It wasn't until 1909 that the first real and somewhat effective game law passed in Missouri. This law remained the basis for Missouri game and fish laws until 1936, when Missouri voters approved a state conservation amendment -- Amendment 4. It passed with a 71 percent majority vote and created the first state conservation commission.

Although concepts like ecology, watersheds and biodiversity weren't really in use then, this amendment set the stage for what was to become the Missouri Department of Conservation: A broad, science-based independent conservation department.

In 1937, two research biologists completed the first statewide survey of game and furbearers. The survey said there were about 1,800 deer and 2,500 turkeys left in Missouri. The survey also painted a declining biological picture of prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, beaver, otters, badgers and raccoon.

Although it's hard to believe now, 1930s Missouri was not a pretty place. Ozark forests had been cut over hard, many of our springfed streams were silted in, numerous game species were in serious decline, and other magnificent species -- such as elk, bison, timberwolves and ravens -- were extirpated. Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeons and ivory-billed woodpeckers left Missouri's stage altogether and became extinct.

Missouri's landscape has changed a lot since then.

Phil Helfrich is an agent and community outreach specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Many of the facts and figures for this article came from the department's "A History of the Conservation Movement in Missouri."

Conservation Commission officials estimated that about one-third of Missouri forests were set on fire every year. A majority of these were purposely set to kill chiggers and ticks, drive out varmints and get rid of brush. Many raged out of control.

Missouri's landscape has changed a lot since then.

Phil Helfrich is an agent and community outreach specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Many of the facts and figures for this article came from the department's "A History of the Conservation Movement in Missouri."

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