One of the newest additions to the Missouri Natural Area Program offers an unequalled opportunity to preserve a type of landscape that once sustained prairie chickens, bison and other prairie species in northern Missouri.
The Missouri Conservation Commission designated 475-acre Pawnee Prairie Conservation Area in Harrison County as a natural area in November 2004. The area is a rare remnant of the tall-grass prairie that covered millions of acres of northern Missouri in pre-pioneer days. Karen Kramer, natural areas coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the area is unique in northern Missouri due to its size.
"This is a long way from being one of the state's largest conservation areas," said Kramer. "You could fit almost 50 areas its size into Peck Ranch Conservation Area in Carter County. But it's huge compared to most remaining prairie areas in north Missouri."
Prairie remnants are rare today because they grew on some of the richest soils on earth. The vast expanses of wildflowers, bluestem and other prairie grasses that once dominated northwestern Missouri were among the first places to be settled. Pioneers plowed up sod that had covered the ground since the last ice age and planted row crops in its place. Today, less than 1 percent of the original prairie acreage remains.
With the prairie went bison, elk, prairie chickens and a host of other wildlife that greeted settlers and filled their dinner tables with natural bounty. Those days are gone, but the Conservation Department and other public and private agencies are trying to save as many of the remaining prairie remnants as possible. Those areas serve as storehouses for prairies' biological diversity and as reminders of how the land once looked.
Pawnee Prairie is within the Grand River Grasslands Project. This is a partnership formed to identify and preserve remaining prairies in northern Missouri and southern Iowa. In 2003, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) commissioned a study to find out how much prairie remained in the 37,120 acres in Iowa's portion of the project area. They found 115 remnants totaling just 135 acres.
"That makes Pawnee Prairie pretty remarkable," said Kramer. Making the area even more remarkable from an ecological standpoint is its location in the midst of other prairie preservation or restoration efforts. It adjoins a 434-acre tract where TNC is restoring prairie. Just two miles south of Pawnee Prairie CA, TNC's Dunn Ranch is another 3,683 acres of restorable prairie land. Finally, it is in the midst of the 65,665-acre Grand River Grasslands Project.
When the Conservation Department acquired Pawnee Prairie CA in 1997 it had been used for cattle grazing, ranging from light to heavy. The agency has put the land into more natural, prairie-friendly management and has been working to increase the variety of native prairie plants growing there.
"This place was a diamond in the rough when it came to the Conservation Department," said Kramer.
"It has a prairie chicken lek -- a place where the big, colorful birds conduct their mating ritual each spring. It has several plants that are very uncommon in northern Missouri today, such as a rare species of St. John's wort, Michigan lily, bunchflower, prairie phlox, prairie gentian and culver's root. New plant species appear each year as the prairie recovers. It's very exciting for those who know how vibrant and bountiful native prairies can be."
The Missouri Natural Areas Program is a cooperative effort of the Conservation Department, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the USDA Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its purpose is to represent and manage examples of all of Missouri's natural communities.
For more information about Pawnee Prairie and Dunn's Ranch, visit http://nature.org/wherewework/northameri....
For more information about Missouri's Natural Area Program, visit http://mdc.mo.gov/areas/natareas/.