Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992


Spring 1989

The Evolution of an Idea

Game Preserves in the Missouri Ozarks

by James Keefe



PRESERVE -- an area restricted for the protection and preservation of animals, trees, or other natural resources; esp. one used primarily for regulated hunting and fishing.

The history of deer and turkey preserves in the Missouri Ozarks is the history of our growing understanding of wildlife management in the state. Until 1924 there were no preserves except for a few set aside by individuals and private hunting clubs, such as the St. Louis Game Park in Taney County. In 1924, under the administration of Game & Fish Department director Frank H. Weilandy, the first state parks and refuge lands were purchased: Round Spring in Shannon County, Indian Trail in Dent County, Alley Spring in Shannon County, Deer Run in Reynolds-Shannon counties and Big Spring in Carter County.

Although bearing the title of state parks, for several years their principal function was as game preserves, and even after their development for park use, many continued also to be classified as preserves, refuges or game production areas.

In the following year, 1925, Keith McCanse took over the reins of the Game & Fish Department and accelerated purchase of state lands, acquiring Meramec State Park in Franklin County and Montauk State Park in Dent County in 1926, followed by Sam A. Baker Park in Wayne County in 1927. The Legislature had increased the percentage of Game & Fish department funds set aside for purchase of parks from five to 25 percent.

The state refuge system for deer and turkey probably dates officially from that year. The rationale for wildlife refuges or preserves is based on an old idea that wildlife, if left alone, will naturally increase and spread. If preserves are set aside for species like deer or turkeys, they will soon spill out on adjacent lands. The theory sounds good and if conditions on the preserve are right they will increase; but in fact there is no incentive for wildlife to leave its refuge as long as its needs are met there. Only if it becomes too crowded and destroys its habitat does it leave the refuge. Nevertheless, that was the immediate objective of the first refuges set up in Ozarks counties.

Acquisition went on apace: Dr. T. M. Sayman of St. Louis donated Roaring River State Park in 1928, buying the 2,400 acres at an auction for $105,000. Other acquisitions followed and by 1936, the last year of the old Game & Fish Department now headed by Wilbur Buford, himself an Ozarkian, the state had acquired Washington State Park in Washington County and Glaize Recreation Area (Lake of the Ozarks State Park) for a total of eleven Ozark park preserves and, in addition, had several other special refuges owned or operated by the U. S. Forest Service in cooperation with the Department: Low Gap in Reynolds County, Eleven Point and Wilderness in Oregon County, Blue Springs in Ozark County, Hercules in Taney County, Springdale in Christian County and Carmen Spring in Howell County.

The Game & Fish Department listed refuge keepers, assistant keepers, farmers, range riders and trappers as personnel of these areas. Their jobs were to improve conditions for deer and turkey, to patrol the areas to keep poachers out, and to control predators. In one Annual Report the Department boasted that its "vermin control" program had bagged 4,160 animals and birds. Its range riders were armed with 25-20 rifles and its trappers used a variety of traps to control animals and birds--hawks and owls were fair game--that might want to share the deer and turkeys raised on the refuges.

Dru Pippin, Missouri Conservation Commissioner from Waynesville, Pulaski County, Missouri. Pippin served longer than any other Commissioner, having been appointed to three successive six-year terms. When the deer restoration began in 1937, Missouri's wild deer population was estimated to be only about 2000. When the program was concluded in 1957, far more than that were taken annually in legal hunts. DOC Photo, 1961.

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In 1929 the Department purchased 95 deer for refuge stocking at a cost of $5,690. An additional 234 deer were released from pens on the refuges. At Deer Run in Reynolds-Shannon counties, four ponds were dug to enhance deer habitat. Sam A. Baker gradually assumed the role of major turkey producer and had 64 pens of wild, semi-wild and tame birds.

An interesting sidelight of turkey restoration involved B. K. Leach, president of the Egyptian Tie and Timber Co., who launched his own private turkey experiments on company land in Reynolds and Shannon counties. His program entailed

staking out domestic hen turkeys to be bred by wild gobblers in the belief that the offspring would inherit enough wild traits to survive. His birds were bought by the Department and stocked at several different refuges, but failed to survive. The new Conservation Commission finally bought his remaining stock and closed out the experiment in 1943. Biologist A. Starker Leopold, son of the famous Aldo Leopold, working mostly on Carmen Spring Refuge in Howell County, had proved that wildness was a heritable characteristic of wild turkeys and only native wild birds could survive in Missouri conditions.

Deer and Turkey Production Areas (Refugees or Preserves) in 1946
Area Name County Administrator
Alley Spring Shannon Park Board
Burnumton Camden Pvt. Cooperator
Bennet Spring Dallas-Laclede Park Board
Big Spring Carter Park Board
Blue Spring Ozark U.S.F.S.
Bunker Hill Shannon St. Tchr. Assn.
Caney Mountain Ozark Cons. Comm.
Carmen Spring Howell U.S.F.S.
Courtois Creek Washington Pvt. Cooperator
Deer Run Reynolds-Shannon Cons. Comm.
Drury Taney Cons. Comm.
Dudley Stoddard Pvt. Cooperator
Eleven Point Oregon U.S.F.S.
Hall-Mar Shannon Pvt. Cooperator
Hercules Taney U.S.F.S.
Indian Creek Stone Pvt. Cooperator
Indian Trail Dent Cons. Comm.
James Foundation Phelps-Crawford Pvt. Cooperator
Lake Ozark Miller-Camden U.S.N.P.S.
Lake Spring Dent-Phelps Pvt. Cooperator
Low Gap Reynolds U.S.F.S.
Moccasin Bend Pulaski Pvt. Cooperator
Montauk Dent Park Board
Mount Zion Laclede Pvt. Cooperator
Niangua Dallas Pvt. Cooperator
Pineville McDonald Pvt. Cooperator
Pomona Howell Pvt. Cooperator
Roaring River Barry Park Board
Rock Creek Barry U.S.F.S. & Pvt.
Sam A. Baker Wayne Park Board
Spring Creek Phelps U.S.F.S. & Pvt.
Stoner Texas Cons. Comm.
Tisco Creek Hickory Pvt. Cooperator
Wilderness Oregon U.S.F.S.
Wilson Bend Morgan-Camden Pvt. Cooperator

(1946 Annual Report of the Conservation Commission.)

Charles Coatney, Department of Conservation refuge manager, and coyote at the Caney Mountain Wildlife Refuge, Ozark County, Missouri, 1943. Predators were believed, in the early years of the deer restoration program (1937-1957), to be significant enemies of the deer population. Human predation, it was subsequently concluded, was the primary danger to deer and turkey. Cabin in background was constructed for biologists and other field workers during research on deer and turkey restoration, much of it accomplished at Caney Mountain. The notable year-long residence of biologist A. Starker Leopold, c. 1941, was at Caney Mountain. DOC photo.
Arley Blackwell at Indian Trail Refuge (now Indian Trail State Forest), Dent County, Missouri, 1943. Tame deer were not encouraged in the deer restoration program, but were sometimes obtained for breeding purposes. Blackwell and Coatney were notable for their long association with the Conservation Department's work of deer restoration. DOC Photo.

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When the new Conservation Commission took over in 1937, it strengthened the refuge program, and as more bright young game biologists began studying the picture, the refuge system's objectives changed. Rejecting the old "spill-over" theory, refuges began to be used to increase deer numbers for stocking elsewhere in the state where advances against forest fires and shrinking of the open range were making conditions favorable for their survival. Many new "game production areas" (the old concept and title of preserve or refuge was being phased out) were opened in cooperation with private landowners and other agencies. The high water mark was in 1946 when 35 such areas were listed in the Annual Report. (See Table).

So successful were the refuges in producing deer, and so effective were the refuge personnel, that hunters near a refuge used to claim that conservation agents used a chemical in their gas tanks that, when they patrolled adjacent areas, would drive the deer back into the refuges. Of course, they also claimed the range riders, just before deer season, would drive only the buck deer back into the refuges, leaving the does to torment the hapless hunters. A neat trick if they could do it!

As deer numbers dramatically increased, the number of refuges was gradually decreased. By 1951-52 only nine were listed and by 1954 only five. Creating openings and providing ponds, plus the planting of food plots, increased deer numbers. The surplus was trapped each year and moved elsewhere in the state, a program so successful that by 1953 efforts turned from deer to wild turkeys.

In 1953 Biologist Ken Sadler and Refuge Manager Ray Woodring successfully adapted the waterfowl cannon-net trap to turkeys, which made turkey trapping much more effective. The program of trapping and releasing turkeys in desirable habitat received a considerable boost. Carmen Spring in Howell County and Peck Ranch in Carter County were now the focal points of turkey restoration.

By the mid-50s almost none of the old refuges were refuges anymore. Most had been opened to public hunting and with the steady acquisition of other state forest lands, plus national forest lands, the Ozarks once again was a hunter's paradise.

Since 1958, land acquisition in the Ozarks has been limited for the most part to purchasing stream accesses and rounding out state forest land holdings. The concept of the game preserve had come and gone with our increasing understanding of wildlife and its needs. Turkeys continue to be trapped on one or two preserves for trading to other states for creatures like ruffed grouse, pheasants or river otters. Some trades have even been made for seed stock of prairie plants and warm season grasses.

An era that began in 1927 with an attempt to give deer a safe haven to breed in, ended with the fulfilling of the turkey restocking program in the 1980s. There still are preserves in the Ozarks but now they are havens for endangered plant and non-game animal species, or they are natural areas, preserving for Missourians small samples of what pristine Missouri was like.

James Keefe served the Missouri Department of Conservation for 36 years as Public Information Officer and as Editor of the Missouri Conservationist magazine. Before he retired, he wrote The First 50 Years, the history of the Department of Conservation. He lives in Jefferson City.

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