‘Everybody can do their part’: Naturalists working to reestablish prairies in Missouri

‘Within a 40-mile radius of the town of Monroe City, there are two remnants of the 8,000-year old prairie,’ one conservationist notes

By: - January 3, 2023 5:50 am

Alan Miller, a member of the Mississippi Hills chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists, throws grass seeds in a field undergoing prairie restoration on Dec. 2, 2022 (Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent).

MONROE CITY — As beautiful as a tallgrass prairie in bloom is, establishing one is equally unglamorous. 

First invasive species, like autumn olive or bradford pear trees, have to be ripped out and burned off. And even after prairie grass seeds are thrown, it won’t be pretty at first. 

“And next year, you look out there and you just weep because it looks disgusting,” said Bob Kendrick, a member of the Mississippi Hills chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists.

After that, the prairie slowly creeps in and then leaps to its full beautiful form. It’s the “weep, creep, leap” cycle, as Kendrick calls it.

“But that’s not really true because sometimes it’s six or seven years,” Kendrick said, drawing knowing laughs from fellow master naturalists as they mixed seeds from a dozen species with cat litter to toss on a patch of ground near Mark Twain Lake that the Army Corps of Engineers had just burned. 

The Mississippi Hills group has committed to reestablishing seven prairies each year for seven years. Kendrick and fellow volunteers hope to bring native wildlife back into abundance by reestablishing grasslands that were wiped out after European settlement of Missouri. 

“Within a 40-mile radius of the town of Monroe City, there are two remnants of the 8,000-year old prairie,” Kendrick said. He said the two total less than two acres. 

The group is in its third year and has established a seed bank that provides free seeds to landowners who want to establish a prairie. It’s got four more years — or 12 more prairies — to go.

They want people to know anyone can do it. Kendrick pointed out a sign where the group tossed seed that should have read “prairie in progress.” Instead, it said “prairie in progess.” Another “r” had been squeezed in after the fact.

“They’ll look at it and say, ‘Well, if those people can do it, I know we can do it,’” Kendrick said. 

A committed group 

Bob Kendrick, a member of the Mississippi Hills chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists, looks out for progress on a field undergoing prairie restoration near Monroe City on Dec. 2, 2022 (Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent).

Kendrick and Kristy Trevathan were in the inaugural class of master naturalists in north-central Missouri. 

Trevathan said the term “web of life” used by an instructor in their training four years ago still stuck with her. 

“Because when you plant a prairie, you bring the insects. When you bring the insects, you bring the birds and you bring the little mammals and then the little mammals feed the turkeys and the deer,” she said. 

She continued: “It all started making sense — why we do what we do.” 

Before his training as a master naturalist, Kendrick said he thought he knew a fair bit. But the knowledge he gained about invasive plants and the sheer number of species of animals in Missouri made him rethink that. 

“I’m in the woods a lot. I thought I knew a little bit of stuff,” Kendrick said. “And I found out I was a babe in the woods.”

One of the group’s instructors said their newfound knowledge of invasive plant species would ruin every walk from then on.

When Alan Miller started to establish an acre of prairie on his property, he first had to clear out rampant invasive species — primarily autumn olive trees. A friend who helped him then started noticing the trees everywhere as he drove home. 

“When I got my place, there was…one place in my area that had that autumn olive, and now it is just spread out all over the place,” he said. 

This year, Miller said he cleared autumn olive on 12 acres. He had to fight autumn olive as it tried to encroach on land he cleared four years ago. 

But on the acre he started establishing a prairie on a few years ago, he’s seeing results following a prescribed burn last year. 

“One of the guys that helped on that burn came to my place,” he said. “I goes, ‘You’re in for a treat now,’ and it was blooming and it was just full of flowers.” 

In Kendrick’s own yard, he estimates he has four or five species of birds that weren’t there before.

It’s not just the master naturalists who are helping. Kendrick said more than 40 people have pitched in to collect seed from swaths of prairie for the seed bank. Kendrick said he bought enough seeds for two acres and it cost more than $1,000. 

So he’s giving away seeds for those who want to help establish the prairie. 

“My garage is a mess,” Kendrick said. “My wife is ready to kill me.”

Trevathan is establishing a prairie on her one-acre yard and a songbird garden on a neighboring property she rents out. 

“Everybody can do their part,” she said.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.