The Nature Conservancy has canceled public prairie chicken viewing at Dunn Ranch in the Grand River Grasslands for the 2009 season to give the current prairie chicken population an opportunity to rebound from last year’s devastating weather events.
This was the only public site in Missouri where prairie chickens could be observed on the “booming” grounds from a blind.
This past year was difficult for the prairie chicken population at Dunn Ranch in northwestern Missouri. The prairie chickens experienced a harsh winter in the area with more than 120 days of continuous snow/ice cover. This was followed by one of the wettest springs on record. The Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch received multiple rains of 3-6 inches during the nesting period for the birds.
According to the prairie chicken telemetry study by the Missouri Department of Conservation, no broods at Dunn Ranch made it to adulthood last year.
“Although there were nesting attempts,” said Randy Arndt, the Conservancy’s Grand River Grasslands site manager, “the chicks that hatched did not survive. We think the severe localized rain events were more than these young, fragile chicks could handle.
“We don’t believe that the blind is harmful to the reproduction process. However, since our population seems to have suffered severe losses, we don’t want to contribute in anyway to the further decline of this small population,” said Arndt. “At the same time, upland birds can rebound quickly in the right circumstances and we are confident that our prairie chickens will do just that.”
Just to the north of Dunn Ranch, at the Kellerton Bird Conservation area, the observed prairie chicken population tripled from 13-15 overwintering birds to more than 40 birds. The spring 2008 rain events were localized to Dunn Ranch and the immediate area.
The Grand River Grasslands provides habitat for grassland bird species, such as the greater prairie chicken. Several breeding areas for prairie chickens, called leks or “booming” grounds, are located on 4,000-acre Dunn Ranch preserve, which contains the largest expanse of unplowed prairie in northern Missouri.
Of the 21 birds collared for the telemetry study last year, three collared birds remain. This 80 percent mortality rate is not unheard of in upland game birds as they are often victims of predation. However, this rate of mortality coupled with no known birth rate is cause for concern in an already critical population.
According to counts from the booming grounds last year, 25-40 birds regularly appeared throughout the season, mid March to the end of April. If an 80 percent mortality rate was applied to this population with zero reproduction that would put only eight prairie chickens on the lek for spring 2009.
So far, Conservancy staff have observed four to six birds on the lek at Dunn Ranch.
“We look forward to a robust population in 2010,” said Arndt. “We hope for a productive spring with better weather for the nesting prairie chickens.”
Prairie chickens have served as an indicator species within the grassland landscape. However, because the population at Dunn Ranch is a small, somewhat isolated population, they are more susceptible from loss by predation coupled with a non-productive breeding season.
The Grand River Grasslands is a 70,000-acre grassland landscape straddling the Missouri-Iowa border. It is the only known opportunity to conserve a functional tallgrass prairie landscape on deep loamy soils.
The Conservancy works closely with private ranchers, as well as the Missouri Department of Conservation, National Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in the Central Tallgrass Ecoregion, a region spanning six Midwest states.
Using a myriad of management techniques, including prescribed fire, conservation grazing, tree removal and invasive species control to bring back the original habitat for the benefit of prairie chickens and the other grassland species, the Conservancy is working from the high-quality cores of Dunn Ranch/Pawnee Prairie in the south to Kellerton Wildlife area in the north.
Today, less than 1 percent remains of the original tallgrass prairie which once covered a third of Missouri. There are also less than 500 prairie chickens in Missouri so that all of these populations are vulnerable.
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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