Nature Conservancy Ranch Hosts Prairie Chicken Rescue

ST. LOUIS, Missouri, March 9, 2008 (ENS) – Once greater prairie chickens by the hundreds of thousands boomed across the grasslands in their spring ritual, but now fewer than 500 birds remain in Missouri.

This spring, the Missouri Department of Conservation, MDC, and the Nature Conservancy are working together in an attempt to resuscitate a declining and now critically endangered prairie chicken population.

“The old-timers around here remember when you could step out your door and hear them booming in the spring,” said Randy Arndt, site manager for the Conservancy’s Grand River Grasslands project near Hatfield, Missouri.

Arndt is based at Dunn Ranch, a 4,000 acre spread within the 70,000 acre grassland landscape on the Missouri-Iowa border.

Male greater prairie chicken (Photo
by Rob Bennetts courtesy USGS)

Dunn Ranch and the surrounding area will serve as host to the MDC biologists studying the prairie chickens. There is reason to hope for a brighter future for prairie chickens, says Arndt.

“This summer, we found six different broods in one field,” said Arndt last year. “However, this is an indication and purely anecdotal, not part of a formal survey.”

Dunn Ranch has the last and largest expanse of unplowed deep soil prairie in the region. Today, less than one percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains in Missouri.

“Dunn Ranch is the only place in Missouri where we think the prairie chicken population is stable,” said Arndt. “It is important for us to know what works so that we can continue to provide habitat here and replicate our efforts in other parts of the state.”

Max Alleger, a private land conservationist and MDC’s prairie chicken recovery leader, said, “We want to know what types of grasslands and management practices help the prairie chicken raise more young. We’re trying to learn from the birds’ habitat preferences in order to direct our future efforts.”

So far, Alleger and his team have outfitted 21 birds with collars so their movements can be monitored from trucks with tall antenna and supporting hardware protruding from the top.

“Each collar emits a specific signal and these will be tracked by our field biologists in specially equipped trucks,” said Alleger.

“This first year, we’ll be outfitting 20 hens and 20 cocks with remote collars. With the males, we will be primarily interested in dispersal patterns. With the females, we want to know where they prefer to nest and where they look for bugs with their chicks,” he said.

“We’ll then determine what these selected habitats have in common – like height of grass, type of grass, etc. This will help us direct our management to provide these preferred habitats, perhaps helping to increase populations,” said Alleger.

In addition to the telemetry study in northwest Missouri, in mid-March the MDC plans to transfer prairie chickens from Kansas to the Conservancy’s Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie outside of El Dorado Springs, about two hours drive southeast of Kansas City. These prairie chickens will be collared as well and introduced in shifts to the new site.

The Conservancy’s goal in the grassland is to restore and protect functioning tallgrass prairies and provide critical habitat for grassland species, like the greater prairie chicken. Working closely with private landowners and partners like MDC, the Conservancy is using management techniques, including controlled fire, conservation grazing and tree removal to mimic the land’s natural cycles and bring back the original habitat to best serve the prairie chickens and the other grassland species.

“Our prairie chickens are considered an indicator species for our grasslands. They tell us if we are doing our job right,” said Arndt. “This study is incredibly valuable because this will validate what we think we know and will help us determine our future management plan.”

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