Nature is nurtured at Dunn Ranch Prairie
At first glance, a place as vast, unique and complex as Dunn Ranch Prairie defies a simple description. Adam McLane, state director for the Missouri chapter of The Nature Conservancy, can boil it down to a single word: inspiration. The adjective comes to mind easily, he says, because he’s experienced the power of the prairie firsthand.
“It was one of the first places I went when I came to Missouri,” Adam recalls. “When I saw the bison, heard the prairie chickens and saw the streams and the rolling landscape, it inspired me to protect that place for my kids.”
Formed in 1951, The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest environmental nonprofit organizations in the world with a presence in nearly 80 countries. In Missouri, the organization has helped protect 150,000 acres through partnerships with other conservation groups and private citizens since 1956. Today the Missouri chapter owns 30,000 acres across 30 separate preserves from prairies and glades of western Missouri to the creeks and hollows of the Ozarks.
“Our vision is to create a world where people and nature thrive, and striking a balance between the two,” Adam says. “It’s been really effective, using science-based conservation to protect some of the greatest places Missouri has left to protect.”
For a spot on the list of great places, Dunn Ranch Prairie certainly qualifies. Encompassing nearly 4,000 acres — a quarter of which has never been plowed — the ranch protects a remnant of the past. Less than 1% of Missouri’s original tallgrass prairies still exist, making The Nature Conservancy’s efforts there critical to ensure the ecosystem and its residents survive. That list starts with more than 200 native grasses, wildflowers and other plants, some of which put down roots 15 to 20 feet deep and produce the rich topsoil that keeps everything from bison to ants well fed. Prescribed burns, woody shrub control and collecting 6 to 10 tons of seed per year for a 500-acre reseeding program are all part of the management process.
“Mother Nature rules it all,” says Keith Bennett, seed harvest and restoration technician. “She decides if plants will produce seed, how much and whether you can do a burn or not. She runs the show.”
The ranch’s bison herd was reintroduced in 2011 specifically to help maintain this grassland, increasing species diversity and creating habitat for wildlife such as nesting birds. But the prairie’s biggest attractions aren’t the only stars of the show. Bobolinks perch amid the stalks. If a visitor wanders too close to a hiding place, they’re likely to flush a pheasant. The boom of greater prairie chickens echoes across the hills, and out on the high open spaces males congregate in a lek to put on a show for prospective mates. Whether visitors stop by the ranch office and observation platform, located on Grundy Electric Cooperative’s lines, or check out the ranch’s YouTube channel and Facebook page for videos captured by webcam, you can see some of those unique moments of nature.
“We want to make this very interactive for the public and to engage with the local community,” says Grasslands and Sustainable Agriculture Strategy Manager Kent Wamsley. He points to infrastructure additions such as new restrooms, ADA-accessible parking, electric vehicle charging stations and improvements to the ranch’s signage and walking trail as reasons people make the drive to northern Missouri to see a place unlike any other. The fall is a particularly popular time for visiting the prairie or watching for prairie chickens and bison on the viewing platform. “Having those things has been a win-win getting people on site to tour and see it.”
It’s easy to feel lost in the expanse of the prairie — in fact, that’s the experience some visitors come here looking for — but the Dunn Ranch crew never loses sight of the strategic goals for the land. Projects here are aimed directly at the vision of uniting people and nature within the Upper Grand River Grasslands. The Nature Conservancy, MDC and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources protect roughly 10% of the 83,000-acre watershed where farming is a way of life. Far from a challenge, Kent sees the relationship as a unique opportunity for all involved to become better stewards of the prairie.
“We can’t own it all, so the question is how to best work with those around us to build out this vision of a resilient, connected landscape,” Kent says. “Not telling them what to do, but engaging with them and saying, ‘Let’s be partners in this together.’ ”
Some solutions are found in common conservation practices such as seeding native plants, controlling invasive species and improving timber stands. Other projects are unique to the livestock-meets-wildlife landscape, including controlled stream access at cattle crossings, rotational grazing and stabilizing and improving streambanks to prevent erosion. This spring at Dunn Ranch’s Little Creek Farm, crews completed a stabilization project to improve spawning conditions for the endangered Topeka shiner — a rare minnow native to small prairie streams.
One of the most unique projects at Dunn Ranch is the grass bank, two pastures in the ranch’s northern section comprising 400 acres of predominantly native grasses. Ranchers willing to engage in some conservation work on their own land can apply to graze portions of Dunn’s grass bank while they wait for their own to become established. In the early spring, cows help control the fescue and cool season grasses, and in the late summer return for a high-quality buffet of lush native plant species. The net result is not only improved forage for cattle but also additional and improved habitat for wildlife that call the prairie home.
“For this 400 acres, we’re leveraging nearly twofold that in conservation benefit and value on neighboring land directly adjacent to here,” Kent says of the grass bank.
“That’s part of changing the broader landscape, rather than just the part we own, and it’s a great example of nature providing a business solution so that it was economically viable for them to stay on their land,” Adam adds. “More great habitat, whether it’s public or private, is a good thing for everybody.”
For more information on Dunn Ranch Prairie and The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, visit www.nature.org/missouri.