The second wave of prairie chickens will begin arriving via a Missouri Department of Conservation truck from Kansas in early afternoons during the week of July 28. This is a continuation of the effort between The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation to recover a declining and now critically endangered greater prairie chicken population. Once greater prairie chickens numbered in hundreds of thousands, now less than 500 remain in Missouri.
The first group this spring was all boys. They were the “starter” group, the pioneers on a prairie that once had hundreds of birds and now have none. Of the 45 captured by MDC biologists and transferred from the Flint Hills of Kansas to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie just outside of Eldorado Springs, 17 have survived. Eight are confirmed to be alive and living on the lek at Wah’Kon-Tah, waiting for the girls to arrive; 50 more birds in a combination of hens and their young broods.
“The mortality rate for birds released this spring has been slightly higher than for birds on their home prairie, which one might expect. Birds like prairie chickens and quail face many threats and suffer high mortality rates no matter where they live. We would, at the same time, like to see more birds survive and we have procedures in place to transport the birds from point A to point B, quickly and safely and with minimal stress,” said Max Alleger, a private land conservationist and MDC’s prairie chicken recovery leader. Part of that procedure is to outfit adult birds with transmitter collars in order to provide information on dispersal and mortality.
These birds are being released at the Conservancy’s Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, an expanse of nearly 5,000 acres of gently rolling hills, which has been managed with yearly doses of prescribed fire and removal of woody species to make it a prairie chicken haven as well as a functional restored prairie system. Prairie chickens are indicator species to the success of the health of grassland ecosystems. For proper habitats and good nesting, they require diverse grasses, some short grass and no trees. There were no prairie chickens living at Wah’Kon-Tah prior to the release this spring.
“The closest flock of prairie chickens,” said Alleger, “is located at Taberville prairie conservation area, where 30-50 birds reside about 12 miles away where one of our translocated males has settled. These birds are so mobile that they are functionally one population. So the Kansas birds are adding to the overall genetic diversity.”
Stasia Whitaker, the Conservancy’s Osage Plains land steward, based at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, described the release site, “We have an ideal habitat for the hens and their broods. It is similar to where they have been in Kansas – open space, with a mixture of grass and vegetation heights but not thick and impenetrable for young chickens. They’ll have opportunities to find plenty of insects and places to hide from predators.” This is different from the lek site, or booming ground, which is more open, has shorter vegetation and is more dangerous for predation.
Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie is located three miles east of El Dorado Springs, in the Osage Plains, a prairie region with a shallow base of soil in the west and southwest of Missouri. This translocation is the second this year and in the first year of a five-year plan. In all, 500 birds will be translocated from Kansas to Missouri, approximately 100 per year if initial results remain promising.
Birds will be trapped at Smokey Hills Bombing Range and on private ranches near Salina, Kansas, in the early dawn. Transporting will begin immediately with a stop at a veterinarian near Salina for paperwork. Travel time, in an air conditioned truck, will be 5-6 hours.
Monitoring will be done from telemetry trucks. “Each collar emits a specific signal and these will be tracked by our field biologists in specially equipped trucks,” said Alleger. These trucks have a tall antenna and supporting hardware protruding from the top of the cab.
The Conservancy’s goal in the grasslands is to restore and protect functioning tallgrass prairies and provide critical habitat for grassland species. Working closely with private landowners and partners, like MDC, the Conservancy is using a myriad of management techniques, including prescribed 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. Today, less than one percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains in Missouri.
In addition to the transferred prairie chickens at Wah’Kon-Tah, MDC outfitted 21 prairie chickens with similar transmitters at the Conservancy’s Grand River Grasslands project near Bethany, Missouri, on the Missouri-Iowa border. The Conservancy’s 4,000-acre Dunn Ranch, located in the Grand River Grasslands, is the last and largest expanse of unplowed deep soil prairie in the region. This area will host MDC biologists as they study the nesting and roosting selections of prairie chickens to determine preferred habitats. Dunn Ranch has the only stable population of prairie chickens in Missouri and is the only place where visitors can watch the booming ritual each year from an MDC-managed blind.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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