Local Conservation Areas
By Matt Hill, Missouri Department of Conservation
Looking for a scenic destination with wide open spaces, majestic landscapes, and abundant fish and wildlife? El Dorado Springs is within a short drive of many recreational outdoor opportunities, including witnessing Missouri’s rare native prairies, wildlife viewing, and fishing. El Dorado Springs is nestled in the Osage River watershed between tallgrass prairie of the Osage Plains and the Missouri Ozark forests. Within 30 miles of El Dorado Springs, over 155,000 acres of public land and 79,000 acres of lakes are home to some of Missouri’s rarest species and best fishing holes.
The two largest remaining prairies in the area are Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie (4,040 acres) and Taberville Prairie (1,680 acres), both within 15 miles of El Dorado Springs. Wah’Kon-Tah means “great spirit” or “great mystery” in Osage. There are also small remnant prairies scattered across the upland portions of Schell-Osage Conservation Area and the Linscomb Wildlife Area.
About 30 minutes west of El Dorado Springs you will find Ripgut Prairie, Missouri’s largest wet bottomland prairie. Here the areas namesake, prairie cord grass “ripgut” dominates. Native Americans used cord grass for thatching lodges and early Euro-American settlers used it for roof thatching. Early settlers called cordgrass “ripgut” because of the serrations on the grass leaves that could cut the bellies of livestock running through it. The wet prairie is more than cordgrass. Sullivant’s milkweed and swamp milkweed provide blooming flowers that attract butterflies and other insects. In the late summer and fall the golden yellow blooms of sawtooth sunflower and beggarticks (Bidens species) enliven the prairie. A number of sparrow species use the area throughout the year for food and cover.
There is no best time of the year to visit prairies, because they have something to offer year round. In the spring, Indian paintbrush, shooting stars, and hyacinth are the first wave of blooms to blanket the prairie. During spring bird migration, thousands of bobolinks migrate through on their 12,000-mile journey to their summer breeding grounds in northern states and into Canada. Raptors like northern harriers and short-eared owls can also be seen gliding above the prairies searching for a meal, and the mating call of greater prairie-chickens can be heard booming across the landscape. Stalking a gobbler in the tall grass is also a unique turkey hunting experience that prairies offer.
Tallgrass prairie once blanketed more than one-third of Missouri! Today, less than one percent of that native prairie remains. Remaining prairie gems are the only places you can see many plants and
wildlife that have adapted to prairies and don’t exist anywhere else. This region’s prairies provide a glimpse into the past at what a large portion of Missouri looked like before European settlement.
In less than 30 minutes from El Dorado Springs, travelers can visit ten different prairies that are free and open to the public. These prairies are owned and managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Prescribed burning and grazing are a few management tools used by area biologists to simulate historic disturbances like wildfires that shaped prairies historically. These disturbances limit the negative impacts of plants that are invasive on prairies like trees, which were historically uncommon here. One of the best ways to keep native prairies healthy is to maintain a diversity of plants and wildlife, which makes visiting and exploring them lots of fun.
Summer is the perfect time to photograph regal fritillary butterflies feeding on coneflowers, monarch butterfly larvae on milkweeds, pink katydids resting on a blade of little bluestem, and ornate box turtles. The “bob-white” whistle of the aptly-named northern bobwhite quail is hard to ignore as they search for a mate. Other bird species that nest on these prairies include scissor-tailed flycatchers, loggerhead shrikes, and Henslow’s sparrows. During the heat of the day, find refuge amongst the native shrubs that line the prairie streams and search for fish, salamanders, turtles, and snakes.
In autumn, prairie grasses turn rich shades of red, gold, purple, and brown, while the blooms of asters, gentians, and late sunflowers can be enjoyed. If you visit the right day, you may be able to watch as prairie managers burn the prairie from the distance. Prescribed fire helps to stimulate the vegetation for the next year’s growing season, just as the Osage Indians did For many years to attract wildlife, facilitate travel, and as a form of warfare.
While most prairie life is dormant during the winter, there’s no better time to visit if hunting has brought you to the area.
Trophy deer find refuge in the tall grass and thickets, and abundant bobwhite quail and woodcock populations will keep your old bird dog busy.
Prairie-chicken Viewing Events
Each morning in the spring, male prairie-chickens gather on their leks, or mating grounds, to display. They boom, dance, spar, and cackle to show their dominance and attempt to win the favor of the hens, and these displays are a unique sight to see. These birds are endangered in Missouri and their spring mating rituals can only be seen in fewer than ten places in the state.
In March, the Missouri Department of Conservation hosts Prairie-chicken Viewing Events at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. For more information and to sign up, call the Conservation Department’s El Dorado Springs office at 417-876-5226.
Two of the largest waterfowl areas in Missouri, Four Rivers Conservation Area and Schell-Osage Conservation Area, are also within 30 miles of El Dorado Springs. Together, they offer over 8,000 acres of managed wetlands for hunting and bird watching. Late November and early December the migration comprised of mostly mallards and snow geese peaks. During that time as many as 100,000 ducks and 40,000 geese can be seen loafing on area lakes, feeding in the wetland pools and adjacent crop fields. During spring migration ducks in full breeding plumage perform courtship rituals in the wetlands. As many as 180 species of shorebirds, herons, plovers, avocets, terns, and pelicans are numerous at different times of the year. Portions of the area are closed from October 15th-January 31st to provide a refuge area for migrating waterfowl to rest and eat without being disturbed, so be sure to consult an area brochure to help plan your route.
Schell-Osage Conservation Area (8,635 total acres) was opened to waterfowl hunting in 1964 and today provides hunting spots for up to 40 hunting parties daily during the middle zone waterfowl season. You must participate in a morning draw at the area headquarters to try your luck at getting a hunting spot each day. The special early teal season, early Canada goose season, and snow goose conservation order also are good times to hunt when the conditions are right. Bald eagles nest in two or three spots annually along the Osage River. The best time for eagle viewing is February and March when the eagle are attracted in large numbers by waterfowl congregated on Schell and Atkinson lakes. To find out information during duck season about waterfowl numbers, water conditions, draw times, or other information, you can call the information hotline for Schell-Osage Conservation Area at 417-432-1074.
The 13,929 total acres of Four Rivers Conservation Area are largely wetlands with several large tracts of bottomland hardwood forest. Waterfowl hunting at Four Rivers is available by participating in the morning draw or via self-check-in hunting one of the open hunting units. Nearly all of the North American puddle ducks occur on Four Rivers. Mallard, pintail, gadwall, widgeon, shoveler, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, and wood ducks are common to see during fall and spring migrations. Less common species such as wood storks (spring) and trumpeter swans (winter) can also be seen on Four Rivers. As many as 150 bald eagles have been observed on the area. A boardwalk in Unit 3 provides opportunities to view emergent wetland habitat and many different types of wildlife. For more information about the area, call the information hotline at 417-395-4495.
Eagle Day events sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation are held in the winter on even-numbered years at Schell-Osage Conservation Area, located 15 miles northwest of El Dorado Springs. Indoor activities, including exhibits and videos, are held at the Schell City Community Center three miles from the Conservation Area. The highlight of the program is the guest appearance of a live bald eagle. Participants can purchase refreshments from the Schell City Community Club while enjoying the program. Afterwards, visitors are directed to eagle-viewing stations on the conservation area where they enjoy seeing bald eagles in the wild. Adult birds can also be seen on active nests in spring in the area.
Nearby Conservation Areas
Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie Conservation Area
Taberville Prairie Conservation Area
Linscomb Wildlife Area
Schell-Osage Conservation Area
Harry S. Truman Reservoir Management
Montrose Conservation Area
Four Rivers Conservation Area
Osage Prairie Conservation Area
Little Osage Conservation Area
Shawnee Trail Conservation Area
Gay Feather Prairie Conservation Area