The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation are teaming up to resuscitate a declining and now critical prairie chicken population. Once greater prairie chickens numbered in hundreds of thousands, now less than 500 remain in Missouri.
“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, the 4,000 acre site within the 70,000 acre grassland landscape on the Missouri-Iowa border.
Dunn Ranch and the surrounding area will serve as host to the MDC biologists studying the prairie chickens. The big questions are: Are the birds benefiting from the habitat? What can be done to enhance these efforts in this area and elsewhere in the state?
“This summer, we found six different broods in one field,” said Arndt. “However, this is an indication and purely anecdotal, not part of a formal survey.”
Enter Max Alleger, a private land conservationist and MDC’s prairie chicken recovery leader. “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.”
“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. 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.
So far, Alleger and team have outfitted 21 birds with collars. 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.
“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.”
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.
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 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.”
In addition to the telemetry study in northwest Missouri, MDC plans to transfer prairie chickens from Kansas to the Conservancy’s Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie outside of El Dorado Springs, approximately two hours southeast of Kansas City. These prairie chickens will be collared as well and introduced in shifts to the new site. This transfer and study will begin in mid March.
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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