By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
MINDENMINES, Mo. – As a natural resource steward at Prairie State Park, Brian Miller spends a lot of time on these rolling grasslands. His favorite is the last hour of the day.
That made my arrival perfect. The sky to the right was pink and purple as the sun set. To the left, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in a gray column that reached to the ground. But the storm was all bluster, no rain.
The hot, dry summer must be perfect for the wildflower known as Gayfeather, or blazing star, because I was surrounded by its purple spikes as I hiked, fittingly, the Gay Feather Trail.
The buzz in the air was from the assortment of bees, beetles and butterflies working the flowerheads. A chorus of coyotes yipped in unison, then went silent. Some say the howling is the adults teaching the pups to communicate. They sure sounded happy.
Prairie State Park celebrates the 30th anniversary of its dedication this year with a Prairie Jubilee on Sept. 29. The daylong event will include bison tours, a living history loop, live music, bison chip throwing, native plant sales and an 1800s medicine show. All is free except for a lunch of smoked bison.
Missouri once was covered by some 13 million acres of prairie, nearly a third of the state. Less than 1 percent remains. The park is the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie with nearly 4,000 acres that was saved largely because of the rocky terrain. It was mowed for hay and grazed, but the vast majority of the park never was plowed.
The park is one of several tracts of prairie preserved in the Midwest thanks to Katharine Ordway, a Connecticut heiress who donated more than $40 million to buy up pristine examples of the disappearing landscape. She came to Barton County, on the Kansas border in southwest Missouri, in 1972 and liked what she saw, providing financing for the first land purchases.
The prairie is a special place. Drive the gravel road leading to Prairie State Park and the croplands soon give way to grasses and flowers spreading into the horizon. If you’re lucky, the bison herd may be in view, recreating the scene that greeted the first settlers.
“We kind of get two groups of people,” said Miller, the natural resource steward. “There are people who know what a prairie is and come from all over the country, even other countries, to see it.
“Then there are people who come and say, ‘Where’s the trees? Where’s the park?’ Then they get out of the cars and start hiking and see the wildlife and the flowers - and they get it. That’s the people we want the most.”
Along with his favorite hour, Miller also has his favorite month at the park.
“Probably June,” he said after some prodding. “That’s the peak of the wildflower bloom. You get coneflower, rattlesnake master, beard tongue, lead plant, sneezeweed, butterfly milkweed. September is good, too, with the goldenrod, the yellow sunflowers. That’s why they call it ‘golden September’.”
The park, in fact, can be enjoyed with each changing season.
Spring brings Indian paintbrush, yellow star grass and ragged fringed orchids. Summer color turns to gold and russets in the fall, with sumac a fiery red and tall grasses that wave in the wind. A winter snow coats the bison herd with a mantle of white as their steaming breath becomes a frosty beard.
Winter also brings a special visitor.
“We get short-eared owls from up north,” Miller said. “These last two years have been the best. We’d get within 20 yards and they’d sit there and watch us.”
Because it is a remnant of a rare and disappearing landscape, Prairie State Park may be the most studied piece of land in Missouri. The Nature Conservancy first did a vegetation survey in 1994, and state botanists have used that data as a baseline for observing changes due to prescribed burns, invading exotic species and bison grazing over the following 18 years.
Mike Currier, a prairie ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources, said the intensive studying helps in the management of the park.
“Monitoring data is kind of a barometer,” Currier said. “It helps us understand what changes are going on. Insect life, bird activity all are based on vegetation.”
North America’s rainforest
At first glance, the prairie appears to be a solitary place. But get out into it, and the diversity of plants and animals comes alive, literally, especially in the mornings and evenings.
“The prairie really is like the rainforest of North America – the species numbers are relatively similar,” Miller said. “And this landscape is just as rare and endangered as that landscape.”
The park has more than 25 rare and endangered plants and animals, many not found elsewhere in the state. There are some 500 species of plants and 150 species of birds, including northern harriers and a small population of greater prairie chickens. Look for scissor-tailed flycatchers on the utility wires.
The stars of the show, however, are the bison that are free to roam some 2,200 acres of the park that is fenced. On some visits to the park, the herd is within view. On others, the only bison a visitor may see are the two mounted animals displayed in the visitor’s center.
Nine bison were brought to the park in 1982. The herd has grown to about 130 with spring calves, and is kept at around 100 with an annual fall sale of surplus animals. Prices have been good lately, with a young bison bringing $700 to $800. The park also has a herd of about 25 elk.
The elk are secretive and seldom seen, hiding out in a grove of trees in a remote corner of the park. The bison herd moves about, which I found out on my last hike on Sandstone Trail, one of five trails totaling 12 miles.
The herd came over a hill and ambled toward me, leisurely grazing along the way. But their pace was deceptive, and the two big bulls in front soon filled the frame of my telescopic lens. That was within the park’s advisory 100-yard limit, and my retreat was hasty.
There have been no incidents between hikers and bison “so far,” Miller said. But the animals can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, are equipped with sharp hooves and horns, and are as agile and quick as a horse.
“They’ll let you know when you’re too close,” Miller said. “The first thing they do is defecate. That means they’re a little anxious and aware you’re there.
“Then the tail goes up. The higher it goes, the angrier they are. If it raises straight up, you’d better get out of there cause they’re ready to nail you.”
Missouri State Parks is a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. For more information on Prairie State Parks, visit mostateparks.com.