PITTSBURG — About one third of Missouri was once covered by tallgrass prairie. Today less than one percent of that is left.
Fortunately for Pittsburg area residents, a glimpse of what the local natural environment once looked like is still accessible nearby at Prairie State Park —the largest tract of publicly-owned prairie remaining in Missouri— just a few miles northwest of Pittsburg on the Missouri side of the state line.
Katy Holmer, natural resources steward at Prairie State Park, was the featured speaker at the April 25 meeting of the Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society at Pittsburg State University, giving an overview of the wildlife viewing opportunities and other activities available at the park.
“We have six trails that have over 16 miles available for running, hiking, birding and other nature activities, though we don’t allow biking and we don’t allow pets on the trails because of the potential interaction that can happen with bison and also just to protect our natural resources since it is such a unique ecosystem,” Holmer said. “We do welcome pets on leashes in the picnic area and the campgrounds.”
Prairie State Park, established in 1980, includes just under 4,000 acres of land. Last year, Holmer said, the park celebrated the 30th anniversary of its Regal Tallgrass Prairie Nature Center.
“Wildlife viewing is probably one of the most popular activities at Prairie State Park and since I was last here about four years ago, Prairie State Park has been added to the newly-formed Great Missouri Birding Trail,” Holmer told an audience of about 40 people at the Audubon Society meeting. The Great Missouri Birding Trail is a partnership between the Missouri Bird Conservation Foundation, Missouri Department of Conservation, and Wallis Companies, and includes numerous other sites throughout the state.
Aside from birds, animals commonly seen at Prairie State Park include deer, rabbits, lemmings, coyotes, beavers, snakes and butterflies. Rarer species to see include prairie chickens. Holmer said that she has not yet seen any badgers in the park, although they are supposed to be there. She recently saw her first box turtle in the area, she said.
One of the most popular wildlife attractions at Prairie State Park is its herd of about 50 bison, first introduced to the park in 1985. The bison benefit the prairie ecosystem with their grazing, Holmer said, creating diverse habitats for other wildlife. The park offers monthly guided bison hikes.
“We do ask you to call ahead because they’ve gotten so popular that sometimes when you have 50 or more people the bison will go further and further away from you, so it’s good to call ahead and plan that,” Holmer said.
It is possible to see Prairie State Park’s bison without going on a guided hike, Holmer said, but those attempting to do so should be careful.
“If you’re in your car you can get very close, but we recommend a hundred yards, so a football field length away, mostly for your safety,” she said.
“I do get a little nervous when I follow the hashtag #PrairieStatePark on Instagram and I see people’s shadows in the pictures with bison and I’m like ‘Oh my gosh,’ you know, they’re so lucky, because that could go badly.”
At one time Prairie State Park had a herd of elk, but it was hard to keep them in the park, and under Missouri state law they had to be treated as captive animals and given veterinary checks.
“So we could never release them throughout the park, because they’re not as easy as the bison to round up,” Holmer said, and it eventually became too much work to keep the elk at the park.
“They’re all gone — I hope,” Holmer said. “Let me know if you see any, but they should all be gone.”
Other activities that attract visitors to Prairie State Park include camping. The park has four basic campsites available on first-come, first-served basis, as well as a backpack campsite.
Prairie State Park represents a type of wildlife habitat that has been steadily diminishing over the years, but preserving the tallgrass prairie environment of the park does not mean simply leaving it untouched.
“Prescribed burns are probably one of the most important tools we have for managing the prairie,” Holmer said. The park generally aims to burn between one third and one half of its acreage annually in controlled burns.
Maintaining Prairie State Park is a lot of work. Much of that work is done by volunteers, including local Scout troops, PSU students, and Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society members.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the effort, time and talent of these volunteers,” Holmer said.
To find out more about volunteer opportunities or visiting Prairie State Park, call 417-843-6711 or visit https://mostateparks.com/park/prairie-state-park