Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Commemorating 25 years of Missouri River conservation

September 9, 2019

Scenic view of the river and trees along the Jameson Island Side Channel
Jameson Island Side Channel. Photo by Anna Weyers/USFWS.

We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are celebrating 25 years of conserving Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. The lower Missouri River is the largest free-flowing river in the United States, encompassing nearly 1.5 million acres of bottomland habitat for fish, wildlife and plants, while providing commercial transportation and recreation opportunities for communities across our nation’s heartland. Take a moment to learn more about this extensive refuge and plan a trip to experience it first-hand.

Following the flood of 1993 and continuing for the past 25 years, private landowners sold more than 18,000 acres of floodplain for permanent protection. As a result, the refuge grew along portions of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Kansas City.

The historic Missouri River, nicknamed "Big Muddy" because of its murky, sediment-filled waters, serves as beneficial habitat for many wildlife species. The river's ability to carve through floodplains and create side channels, wetlands and oxbow lakes has attracted and sustained wildlife since the retreat of glaciers thousands of years ago. Drastic changes began to occur on the river soon after the journey of Lewis and Clark described its wildlife to the world in the early 1800s. Over the next century, hundreds of steamships sank in the river and efforts began to control the natural forces of the waterway. By the 1980s, more than 700 miles of river had been channelized, which reduced risks to commercial transport, but also impacted crucial habitat for wildlife.

Floodplains are important spawning sites for numerous native big river game and non-game fish species, including the federally endangered pallid sturgeon. Natural and man-made channels also benefit resident and migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, including the federally listed piping plover and interior least tern, which utilize sandbars for nesting, breeding and foraging.

The Missouri River provides what some call the conveyor belt of wildlife viewing, creating wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities year-round. You’ll likely see all sorts of migratory birds, from warblers to hawks, at various times throughout the year. You might also catch a glimpse of beavers, bobcats and other secretive wildlife traveling along the river's shoreline.

If you prefer to stay on land, the refuge boasts great hiking. Be sure to visit the Jameson Island Unit adjacent to the historic community of Arrow Rock, Missouri, where you can hike the Lewis and Clark Trail of Discovery and learn about the history and habitat of the area from interpretive signs along the way. Imagine the ruts of the wagons headed west on the Santa Fe Trail or take note of the limestone and flint in the bluffs that Lewis and Clark mentioned in their journals. This one-mile hike ends along the banks of the Missouri River and offers both beautiful scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. Look up in the trees and you may spot pawpaw fruit or a barred owl. Scan ahead and you may see a white-tailed deer dart across the trail. Observe turtles basking on logs in the wetlands along the trail. Skittish wood ducks are often seen but more likely heard as their rapid wings whistle as they get away.  

All of the refuge units are open to the public and many have at least one parking facility and informational kiosk. To experience the floodplain forest, you can hike the 3.2 mile Little Muddy Loop Trail at the Overton Bottoms North Unit near refuge headquarters. In early spring, keep an eye out for morel mushrooms as you work your way around the loop. Feel free to harvest berries, mushrooms and nuts for your personal consumption as you hike. 

Some units have trails, scour lakes for fishing and all are open to hunting and wildlife viewing. The Missouri River, tributary streams and scour lakes provide plenty of opportunities to fish on most units within the refuge. River flooding provides excellent opportunities to catch catfish, buffalo, gar, carp and other fish throughout the year. Some of the refuge scour lakes and ponds are located in more remote locations, providing some isolated fishing opportunities. For a unique fishing experience, try the Diana Scour. This 11-acre lake scoured out by the river during the flood of 1993 is located adjacent to the Little Muddy Trail and just a short hike from the trail head. You can catch bass, crappie, catfish and carp, just to name a few. Check out the refuge website for directions, maps and more information.

We caution you to avoid putting yourself in a life-threatening situation due to quickly rising floodwaters. Plan ahead and check with refuge staff on latest flood conditions. Much of the refuge has poor or non-existent cell phone service and lands are subject to flooding from precipitation that happens miles upstream. After you’ve mapped out your trip, we suggest leaving a copy of your hiking plan with someone who’s not coming along. Make sure to include your dates of travel and when they can expect you to return. We encourage you to monitor predicted river levels before you venture out on the refuge by visiting the National Weather Service advanced hydrologic prediction service.

Thanks for taking some time to learn about Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge as we mark 25 years of conservation, excellent recreation and fun adventures. Learn more about Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and plan your trip!

A female blue dasher dragonfly rests on a plant stem
A female blue dasher dragonfly takes a break. Photo by Anna Weyers/USFWS.

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

Learn more »