On Halloween, biology chair Dr. Mark Mills and the rest of his department gave everyone a special “treat”. The John Rushin Teaching and Research Prairie was officially dedicated, with many in attendance to celebrate the grand opening.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony was to announce that 40 acres of land on Missouri Western’s campus is being transformed into a prairie and savannah habitat. The habitat restoration project will be a huge asset to biology students and faculty by giving them many new hands-on research projects and volunteer opportunities.
Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Private Land Conservationist Jeff Powelson has worked closely with Missouri Western to start the habitat restoration and said that it gives students here a huge advantage.
“Instead of just researching research, they get to do research,” Powelson said. “That’s a huge plus to kids going out into the market.”
Along with being a resource for Missouri Western students, the prairie will also be used by the community. It is located on the cross country course behind the dorms, and since there’s already a running course mapped out, there are trails in place for the public to use. Mills expects the plot of land to be used by Cub Scout groups, gardening groups, local schools and the general public.
“Obviously we have a role,” Mills said. “We’re doing it, and students will be involved, but the project is bigger than just us.”
The long process to create a prairie began back in 2014, when a biology student at the time approached Mills with the idea. It was then put on the university’s 2015 Master Plan, which is the school’s plan for its upcoming years.
Five years later, the work has officially begun. Over 100 different types of native seeds were planted back in January by the MDC, and Missouri Western’s Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society recently planted native trees. Mills said that 200+ years ago, all of Missouri would have been rolling prairie, and that’s what they’re trying to get back to with this project.
There will be more work in the future, and Mills said it will take a few years before the transformation is visible. Future projects will include burning—prairies need to burn in order to thrive—, getting rid of invasive species, planting gardens and building a parking lot.
“There’s nothing about this that’s instant results,” Mills said. “It’s going to be way down the road before we can see the fruits, literally, and seeds of our labor. That’s a hard thing sometimes, but education is that way.”
Mills said the prairie wouldn’t have been possible without Powelson and the MDC.
“It’s almost more than a partnership,” Mills said. “He’s helped us do way more than we could’ve ever done, and without him and MDC, this would not be a reality.”
The prairie is named after previous Missouri Western biology professor, Dr. John Rushin. Rushin spent 33 years teaching at Missouri Western and helped build the wildlife conservation program. He also played an important role in getting the MDC office on campus. He retired in 2012, but still spends time helping students with bird banding.
Mills said that with Rushin’s background with prairies, plants and his impact on the university, he was the perfect person to name the prairie after.
“Collectively, we began to realize we couldn’t think of anybody better to name the prairie after,” Mills said. “So, I actually talked to John and I said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about naming the prairie after you,’ and Dr. Rushin is a very humble person, and so he was like ‘No, no, no, you can’t name it after me.’”
Rushin said he is overwhelmed by the naming, and will always support projects at Missouri Western.
“It’s a great honor,” Rushin said. “Way more than I would ever expect and probably more than I deserve, but what I will tell you is there have been a lot of people that have put a lot of work into projects like this. It’s a cumulative effort, it’s not one person.”