History of Missouri wildlife
At the latest Oregon County Historical Society meeting, Oregon County Conservationist Paul Veach, who has been the Missouri Department of Conservation agent for Oregon County since May of 1988, addressed members and visitors about the history of wildlife in the county. A history that evidently shows the importance of conservation efforts.
Veach began by suggesting for anyone interested in Missouri wildlife to read the book, Man and Wildlife in Missouri by Charles Carlson, which is required reading for those that go through the conservation agent training.
By the time the early settlers arrived in Missouri, there were countless numbers of wildlife. There was a ready source of food available and exchanged in the marketplace. "Buffalo dwelled as far east as the Mississippi River and migrated at times along the open flats of the Ozarks, while antelopes scampered across the western prairies. Elk found the forest and prairies to their liking and white-tail deer were abundant everywhere," said Veach. He stated that the timber wolf, the plains wolf along with panthers preyed on the plains species and wild turkey was a staple for the early settlers. Black bears were also prevalent at the time.
Veach told of how settlers treated the animal resources as if they were inexhaustible. This lead to the depletion of population of many of the wildlife species. As this is what happed to the buffalo, antelope and elk that once roamed the Ozarks.
He informed the group that the with the expansion of settlers came the depletion of big game wildlife except for deer. "The last great concentration of elk was wiped out by market hunting Indians in Polk County in 1841," said Veach. By 1850, bison and antelope moved westward and black bears were scarce and panthers became rare.
From 1870 to 1900, market hunting contributed to the passenger pigeon being wiped out of Missouri. In addition, the population of deer and turkey was almost wiped out in a short period of time.
In 1905, one of the first laws was passed for wildlife enforcement, which was legal hunting of ruffed grouse was stopped. "Legislators opposed a five-year closed season to let the birds recover, but they never did," said Veach. He stated that this species was purchased by MDC in other states to be brought back and released.
In 1907, prairie chickens were no longer legal to hunt because of the low population. Veach stated that wild turkey steadily declined until 1935 and there was a one month hunting season. "A survey estimated the entire state population had fewer than 4,000 birds at the time. Deer twindled down to approximately 2,500 animals statewide by 1935 and beaver and otter were virtually gone," said Veach. Other species populations that showed an alarming decrease were racoon, muskrat and wild turkey.
"We went from unbelievable amounts of wildlife to where we actually wiped some species completely out. The passenger pigeon used to be here by the billions and they are extinct and there will never be another due simply to over harvesting," said Veach.
He presented to attendees, information from newspapers from the 50 year ago section and informed the group that after a survey was completed in the mid-1930s the hunting season was closed on many species such as deer and turkey. He stated that racoon season was still open but hunters were limited to 10 a year. On Thursday, Nov. 2, 1944 of The Thayer Newspaper was the announcement for deer season, which was only a two-day season and was the first open season to take place in seven-years. All deer hunting had been suspended after the 1937 open season. However, was reopened in 1944 because the deer herd had increased from approximately 2,500 to approximately 15,000. "That year, hunters reported a total kill of 108 legal bucks," said Veach.
He also stated that permits in 1944 cost $3.15.
During the meeting, Veach also discussed the reemergence of some wildlife species that have long been thought to be extinct to the area such as mountain lions and black bears.
Veach stated there are mountain lions now in Missouri as there were four confirmed sightings three years ago in Oregon County. A confirmed sighting is when a conservation worker from the mountain lion response team confirms it. For instance, if there is a picture on a trail camera, the worker will visit the site to take measurements, collect hair samples, foot prints and scat, which are sent off for DNA testing, to make sure the picture was in the location that it is claimed to be.
He also discussed the few confirmed bear sightings that have occurred in the area.
The Oregon County Historical Society meets the second Friday of the month at Country Cottage in Thayer at 12 noon.