Combining popular conservation programs with Branson’s tourist boom has turned the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center into a facility that has become overwhelmed by popularity.
In order to better accommodate its large annual visitation numbers, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center will close to the public on March 12 so work on a new facility can begin. The conservation center, which serves as a visitors center for MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery, is located at 483 Hatchery Road in Branson. Work on the $6.7 million project will be done by Branco Enterprises Inc. of Neosho and is projected to take nearly two years. The result of this labor will be an educational facility that’s 2.5 times larger than the existing building.
The adjacent Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery will continue to produce trout while construction is underway, but due to the loss of available parking and not being able to provide safe access for public visitation, the hatchery will also be closed to the public. The trails, picnic area, fishing access, and boat ramp to Lake Taneycomo – all located east of the hatchery complex on Belladonna Road – will remain open for public use. MDC Educational staff who work out of the conservation center will continue to conduct programs off-site and virtually.
“We are very excited to move forward with this new facility,” said MDC Southwest Region Education Branch Supervisor Warren Rose. “The current facility was never designed to handle the volume of visitors we have each year. This new facility will allow us to better serve the citizens of Missouri as well as showcase the wonderful fish, forest, and wildlife resources Missouri has to visitors from across the nation.”
The 250,000 people that visit the conservation center each year weren’t part of the site’s original plan. When Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery began operation at the west end of Lake Taneycomo in 1958, its sole mission was to produce trout. It was the MDC’s state-of-the-art answer to the state’s growing interest in trout fishing – an interest that had out-stripped Shepherd’s predecessor; the much-smaller Sequiota Hatchery in Springfield.
The conservation center building, which is part of the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery complex, was built in the late1970s. The original plan for this part of the fish hatchery called for it to be an unstaffed facility designed for passive visitation.
These plans did not envision Branson becoming one of the country’s major tourist destinations. One result of the area’s tourist popularity was a huge swell in visitation to MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills facility – a swell that has surpassed what the site can handle. The hatchery’s scenic location, coupled with free conservation-oriented tours and programs that focus on the one million trout raised at the hatchery each year have made this location a must-see destination for travelers from near and far.
The bulk of the quarter-million people that visit the Shepherd of the Hills facility do so during spring, summer, and early fall. During peak busy times, attendance can be as many as 1,800 people per day. That means an average of more than 200 people per hour are walking through the doors of the conservation center on the facility’s busiest days.
One feature that will make the new conservation center more able to handle visitation of this scale will be a large multi-purpose room that can be subdivided into two classrooms. This will allow visitors to view programs about how trout are raised at the hatchery – long a visitor favorite – in one classroom while the other classroom can be used for other educational programs and meetings.
The refurbished conservation center will also feature a new indoor aquarium, new exhibits, larger lobby, larger restrooms, and more office space for staff and volunteers.
“We realize that, for the next two years, the public may be disappointed when they are unable to visit the center or see the trout at the hatchery,” Rose said. “So, we are asking for everyone’s patience, and we want them to know the wait will be worth it. The payoff will be when the new facility opens. It is going to offer so much more and be another jewel that can spread the message of conservation.”
Branson-area anglers and hunters who have grown accustomed to purchasing their permits at the Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center are reminded that they can buy their permits online through MDC’s MO Fishing and MO Hunting apps.