Originally created 04/27/97

Bird site in midst of urban sprawl



CHESTERFIELD, Mo. - A chemical and drug maker may seem an unlikely place for a wildlife habitat. But outside Monsanto Co.'s Life Sciences Research Center, white-tailed deer and mink play.

The biotechnology research center, located in this western St. Louis suburb on 210 wooded acres overlooking the Missouri River flood plain, is an oasis amid suburban sprawl.

The view from the bluffs reveals a huge shopping mall to the west and new housing developments with manicured lawns and freshly planted shrubs.

Employees of Monsanto, which has Searle, Monsanto and NutraSweet plants in Augusta, have taken it upon themselves to preserve the forest as a pristine playground for birds and animals.

"Most people look at land as something to shape into what they want," said Simon Davies, a restoration specialist who helps with the project. "We're working to return it to what it was."

The project began four years ago with employees Anna Stevens and Mary Smidt, research investigators for Searle, Monsanto's pharmaceutical division.

Ms. Stevens, who was active in a recycling program, learned about an in-house grant for projects that would support Monsanto's pledge "to manage all corporate real estate to benefit nature."

She and Ms. Smidt teamed up to write a proposal to monitor bluebirds - Missouri's state bird - and to create a native prairie.

With a $4,200 grant they formed a land stewardship team of about a half-dozen employees. More than 125 closet environmentalists, as Ms. Smidt calls them, have since gotten involved, volunteering on their lunch hours and after work.

"We all count ourselves very fortunate to have this neat setting and have worked hard to improve it," Ms. Stevens said.

That included tilling two acres and hand-planting grass seed to create their first prairie. The site now is covered by Indian grass and Big Blue Stem reaching 8 feet tall - certainly high enough to hide buffalo, as the original prairie grasses did.

Employees later used Monsanto's prized Roundup herbicide and controlled burning to convert another eight acres into prairie.

They installed 13 bluebird boxes along a hiking trail and organized volunteers to monitor them weekly. The state's bluebird population has declined partly because the birds like to nest in cavities such as dead trees, which are cut down in the suburbs, Ms. Smidt said.

The bluebird project has had limited success. But the property has about 20 nesting boxes for wood ducks, screech owls and purple martins. More than 125 species of birds have been spotted and cataloged.

Workers have added a butterfly garden, a flowering meadow and a wood duck pond.

Volunteers also have worked with the World Bird Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization in St. Louis County dedicated to the preservation of birds, to prepare kestrels to re-enter the wild. Kestrels are small falcons that like to nest in holes.

They generally arrive at the sanctuary after well-meaning people find them and assume they've fallen from a nest and been abandoned. Once at Monsanto, the kestrels can be nurtured and released again into the wild, said Walter Crawford, the sanctuary director.

"This has been really exciting," Mr. Crawford said. "The employees feed and monitor them. It's a win-win situation."

Their work has not gone unnoticed. The Life Sciences Research Center is the first certified corporate wildlife habitat in Missouri. It also has been named Corporate Habitat of the Year by the Wildlife Habitat Council in Silver Spring, Md.

"Monsanto has gone way beyond the limited goals of establishing bluebird nests," said Bill Howard, council president. "They've taken on increasing the flora and fauna. They've shown a remarkable commitment, and involved their employees in the process."

The Life Sciences Research Center isn't the only Monsanto property working to improve Mother Earth. Among other projects: employees in Columbia, Tenn., have helped restore about 1,000 acres of wetlands into a popular bird-watching area; workers in Soda Springs, Idaho, are helping to restore mined land by planting grass and trees; and in Guntersville, Ala., Monsanto donated 209 acres of a former plant site for a bald eagle sanctuary.

"It's important to me to be working for a company that values the environment," said Ms. Smidt, nicknamed "Dr. Weed" and the president of the St. Louis chapter of the Missouri Native Plant Society.

The habitat is open only to Monsanto workers. They walk the trail during breaks, stopping to notice a bald eagle or red-tailed hawk circle overhead, or squatting to look at tracks left by opossums, fox, black snakes or rabbits.

"It's a great opportunity to get out and enjoy a pretty fantastic site," said Mr. Davies, who worked as a research scientist at Monsanto before going to work for the company that maintains Monsanto's grounds. "We're pretty lucky to have it."