Missouri Conservation Summary

By Tim Nigh

Missouri is where the prairies of the Great Plains meet the deciduous woodlands of the eastern United States, and where the two largest rivers in North America, the Missouri and Mississippi, join up. Much of northern and western Missouri were once largely prairie ecoregions. The Ozark Highlands, which occupy most of southern Missouri, is an ancient uplifted plateau that has been dissected by deep, spring-fed stream valleys for millennia. And in the state’s southeastern corner, the northern tip of the Mississippi Alluvial Basin adds swamps and bottomland forest communities and species that are more akin to the Gulf of Mexico’s Coastal Plain.

The Central Dissected Till Plains occupy the northern half of the state, and, with their rich glacial soils, are now largely an agricultural region. Consequently, prairies and oak woodlands that once dominated the region are scattered and fragmented. However, the best remaining concentrations of these features have been identified as Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs). Grand River Grasslands in northwestern Missouri is a large cluster of prairies that stretch from Missouri across the state border into Iowa. It supports the largest prairie remnants in northern Missouri and several species of conservation concern, including the greater prairie chicken, prairie skinks, regal fritallary butterflies, prairie mound ants and a variety of grassland-dependent birds. A grassland coalition of state and federal conservation agencies, along with The Nature Conservancy and local citizens, is working collectively on conservation there. Similar efforts are occurring on other glacial prairie clusters, in the loess hill prairies bordering the Missouri river, and in clusters of big river wetlands on the Missouri and Grand Rivers.

The Osage Plains of west-central Missouri is an unglaciated prairie ecoregion. While now also largely agricultural, prairie remnants, several over 1000 acres in size, are more common here. Again, several prairie clusters have been identified and coalitions of interested agencies, organizations and citizens are working together to conserve prairie and prairie dependent wildlife. The Marmoton/Wah Kon Tah COA also contains a wide array of wetlands along the upper reaches of the Osage River and its tributaries.

One of the oldest inhabitable land masses in North America, the Ozark Highlands is home to a wide variety of native ecosystems and numerous endemic species. The Ozark Highlands also has the greatest amount of conservation opportunity in Missouri. The rugged hills and ancient igneous knobs are still dominated by native woodlands and forests, in which glades, fens, sinkhole ponds, caves, springs and outstanding spring-fed streams are embedded. Numerous endemic species, including the Ozark cavefish, the Salem cave crayfish, the Ozark swallowtail, Ozark Chinquapin and the Ozark wake robin (just to name a few), persist in the ancient and unique environments of this region. Substantial public land, including the 1.5 million acre Mark Twain National Forest, offer outstanding opportunities for conserving biodiversity on a large, landscape scale. Many of the COAs here, such as the Current River, Roaring River and Upper Niangua COAs, have initiated glade and woodland restoration initiatives where thinning and prescribed fire are being applied across the boundaries of several conservation ownerships. In addition, many of the COAs are focused on cave conservation, particularly in securing cave entrances and influencing activities in the recharge areas of the caves.

The Mississippi Alluvial Basin ecoregion in Missouri makes up the “bootheel” of southeastern Missouri. While the Basin served as a model for draining the floodplain of the Mississippi in the early 1900s, there are remnants of its original condition scattered throughout. The Mingo Basin COA is a large swamp and wet bottomland forest that is centered on Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Duck Creek Conservation Area. Cypress/tupelo swamps and a variety of bottomland forest communities support an array of wildlife unique to this part of our state, including mole salamanders, green tree frogs, three-toed amphiumas, bantam sunfish, cypress minnows, swamp rabbits and numerous wetland birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation are working together with other partners to connect existing conservation lands and, to the degree possible, restore a more natural hydrologic regime. Similar efforts are under way at a large cluster of existing wetlands along the Mississippi at River Bends COA.

Missouri's Future

The Missouri Comprehensive Wildlife strategy has produced a framework for focusing conservation efforts on key landscapes for conserving this wide array of biodiversity. The strategy employs an ecological framework to identify COAs that capture priority places for targeted landscapes, communities and species. Numerous state, federal and non-profit conservation organizations combined their priorities to come up with a set of COAs. From this set, the top 36 places to go to work immediately were selected. Each of these has a multi-disciplinary implementation team and conservation actions underway. Please visit the maps and links to the COA profiles to get a flavor of the Ozark highlands, as well as conservation activities in the other ecoregions in Missouri.


Tim Nigh is a Resource Scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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