The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation are teaming up 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.
To augment the population, MDC is on a mission. A rescue mission of sorts. MDC wildlife biologists will travel to the Flint Hills of Kansas to transport prairie chickens to Missouri. In the cover of darkness, they will trap Kansas prairie chickens. The following day, they will transport them across the state line and prepare for a pre-dawn release. Prior to release, these chickens will be outfitted with radio transmitter collars. Again, in the cover of darkness, the truck will take them to a lek, a gathering area for prairie chickens, usually on top of a hill, and release the birds.
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 ecosytems. For proper habitats and good nesting, they require diverse grasses, some short grass and no trees. Currently, there are no prairie chickens living at Wah’Kon-Tah. Historically, there were hundreds.
“We believe that prairie restoration at Wah’Kon-Tah is at a point that it can once again support prairie chickens,” said Stacia Whitaker, the Conservancy’s Osage Plains land steward, based at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. Three miles east of El Dorado Springs, Missouri, Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie is located in the Osage Plains, a prairie region with a shallow base of soil in the west and southwest of Missouri.
“The closest flock of prairie chickens,” said Max Alleger, a private land conservationist and MDC’s prairie chicken recovery leader, “is located at Taberville prairie conservation area, where 30-50 birds reside about 12 miles away. Ideally, these two populations eventually could link and become more genetically diverse.With the remote collars on, the birds will be easy to track should they disperse.”
More than 13 years ago, male and female prairie chickens were released at the same time at Wah’Kon-Tah.
“This time, we are releasing the males to the lek first. Results from releases in other states show better eventual success when males are released first to reestablish the booming ground, the social center of a prairie chicken population. When a booming ground is already established, the hens are more likely to remain on site. Then about 12 weeks later, we will release the females. Once we move the hens, some of which will still have their chicks with them, we feel that the population is more likely to stay. Again, the females will have remote collars like the males and we’ll be able to follow them for about a year, to determine where the nests are and if they are productive,” said Alleger.
Birds will be trapped on Fort Riley and Smokey Hills Bombing Range, as well as near Salina, Kansas, on private ranch land, beginning in mid March.. Releases in Missouri will follow within 36 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 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 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 transfer of prairie chickens to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, MDC is in the process of outfitting 20 male and 20 female 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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