Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Portrait of man with plants and rocks in background.

Mike Leahy

Natural Community Ecologist
Missouri Department of Conservation
Jefferson City, MO

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
My undergraduate major was in Forestry with a minor in Soils from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. My masters degree was in Forestry (forest ecology) from Michigan State University.

Briefly describe your current job.
My current position is as the natural community ecologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). I have worked for MDC for 23 years. In my current job I work with MDC field staff and partner organizations such as the Mark Twain Ntional Forest on the inventory, restoration, and monitoring of natural communities such as glades, woodlands, forests, and prairies. I also serve as the MDC coordinator for the inter-agency Missouri Natural Areas Committee. For more information on the Missouri Natural Areas System see:

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
I was fortunate to be able to take botany and plant ecology courses in college and then most of my native plant knowledge has been learned on the job over the years, gleaning from people who know a lot about our native flora.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
Having lands and waters recognized as designated natural areas so that they get the appropriate stewardship. Equally so is teaching new staff and others about native plants and natural communities.

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
Dendrology, Field Plant Taxonomy, Forestry Summer Camp, Plant Taxonomy, Forest Ecology; with MDC I’ve had the good fortune to have learned a lot of native plants from now retired MDC staff (Greg Gremaud, Tim Smith, Tim Nigh, Don Kurz, Mike Skinner, Mike Arduser, Tom Nagel), Paul McKenzie (retired USFWS), and current MDC staff (Susan Farrington, Steve Buback, Chris Newbold). I also took two field botany workshops with the Institute of Botanical Training. There are other folks too I’ve learned so much from. The list could go on and on.

What other subjects have you studied that have been important to your career?
Soil science is hugely important to native plants and natural communities. Also, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), land navigation and map literacy, forestry measurements, and statistics. Human history including archaeology is important for ecologists too.

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
I had paid internships at the Morton Arboretum when I was in college and those really piqued my interest in native plants and ecological communities.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
Compass, maps, field guides, forest measurement gear, soil probes, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and GIS technologies.

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
There is a continuing decline in universities offering classes and field classes in botany and the “ologies” ornithology, herpetology, etc. Soil science is also not always a priority. I would make sure you get to take a field based botany or dendrology class and a soils class. Learn how to read maps and know how to navigate with a compass and map as well as GPS technology. Get summer jobs doing field work. Go on MPF outings and Missouri Native Plant Society outings to learn from others. It’s way easier to learn a whole lot of native plants from someone knowledgeable in the field then trying to figure out things with keys. I’m also not a big fan of AI apps for plant ID. Something is lost when you’re not learning directly from another person.

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