Ghosts of the grasslands
Partnership works to return
the prairie chicken to Missouri
by Jason Jenkins
A male prairie chicken dances on a lek, or “booming grounds” in Kansas. Missouri conservation officials are working to bolster prairie habitat and chicken populations in the Show-Me State. Buy a print of this photo.
Even before the first rays of dawn could claw their way over the horizon, the age-old ritual had begun.
In the faint half-light, an eerie cooing resonated for miles across the vast expanse of prairie grass. The deep, bellowing baritones hauntingly filled the air, only to be sharply interrupted by cackling banshees whose evil laughter seemed to echo acute displeasure.
Early American settlers — waking to this cacophony in a strange land for the first time — may have wondered whether Beelzebub himself had come to join their wagon train.
But as the sun climbed into the eastern sky, fear of devils and demons soon was replaced with awe and wonder as these ghosts of the grasslands were revealed — male greater prairie chickens dancing and singing on their lek, or “booming grounds,” hoping to attract a mate.
“It’s quite the spectacle, one you’re not soon to forget,” says Max Alleger, grassland bird coordinator with the Missouri Department of Conservation, after a morning of watching chickens boom on a lek in central Kansas. “Prairie chickens are a part of our grassland heritage in Missouri, and we’re working hard to ensure their future in our state.”
Max is leading an effort that, if successful, will return the sounds of greater prairie chickens “booming” to portions of their traditional breeding grounds in the Show-Me State.
Such displays were once a common occurrence here. Before European settlement, roughly a third of the state was covered with grasslands, and it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of the birds lived in Missouri.
Prior to European settlement, wildfires and grazing bison herds provided the disturbance prairies needed to remain healthy. Today at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie outside El Dorado Springs, prescribed burns and cattle now mimic those historic effects.
Technically a member of the grouse family, the prairie chicken is still a popular game bird in Western states where populations remain stable. The story is quite different in Missouri, however. Here, changes in the landscape during the past two centuries have left little room for prairie chickens, which were placed on the state’s endangered species list in 1999. Fewer than 100 native birds still exist in Missouri.
Most of the state’s tallgrass prairie met the plow. Other areas were converted to fescue pastures or allowed to grow up in trees and shrubs. Today, less than 1 percent of Missouri’s native grasslands remain, leaving only isolated vestiges where prairie chickens can thrive.
But hope is not lost. A coalition of conservation and agricultural groups have partnered in an effort to not only restore prairie chicken populations but also the native grasslands upon which the species relies.
“This is a difficult bird, a very picky bird from a habitat standpoint,” says Max, who leads the Conservation Department’s Greater Prairie Chicken Recovery Team. “It’s not going to adapt to what we offer right now. This is a challenge of having to go in and remake the habitat, and it requires the interest and cooperation of lots of landowners in these landscapes.”
Steve Clubine, grassland wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, holds a male prairie chicken while Danelle Okeson, veterinarian at Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure west of Salina, Kan., assesses the bird’s health before it is transported back to Missouri.
In 2008, Max and his team began a five-year restoration project to test whether a self-sustaining prairie chicken population could be established at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, a 3,000-acre grassland just northeast of El Dorado Springs straddling the St. Clair and Cedar county line.
The property, owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed in conjunction with the conservation department, had once supported a small population of chickens.
“Wah’Kon-Tah had some chicken habitat but no longer had chickens,” explains Len Gilmore, a wildlife biologist who has overseen several years of intensive management to prepare the prairie to be a suitable home for chickens. “It made for a good location to see if our management is working.”
Prairies like Wah’Kon-Tah comprise hundreds of plant species — including native grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass, as well as broadleaf plants such as compass plant and pale purple coneflower. To remain healthy and provide for the needs of prairie chickens and other grassland bird species, the prairie relies on disturbance. In the past, two distinct forces — fire and grazing — prevented woody plant species from taking over.
“Historically, after a wildfire would burn across a section of prairie, succulent plants would emerge,” says Len. “This new growth would attract bison that would graze the area, then the herd would move on. It’s this system that we’re trying to replicate.”
Two prairie chicken hens cautiously exit a release box at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. Males are trapped in Kansas and relocated to Missouri in the spring, while females are trapped in the summer after they’ve nested.
Today, Len and his team are using a technique called “patch-burn grazing,” which combines prescribed fire and cows at Wah’Kon-Tah. Units of 40 to 50 acres are burned in the spring, then yearling calves are allowed to graze. They gravitate toward the tender, young plants in the burned areas, creating a mosaic of habitat that the chickens require for nesting, raising their chicks and roosting at night.
While prescribed fire has been a tool for managing prairies for some time, the inclusion of grazing now provides an opportunity for partnering with the state’s beef industry.
“Bluestem and yearlings, they just kind of go hand in hand,” says Dusty Schaaf, a cattle producer from El Dorado Springs. For the past two years, the member of Sac Osage Electric Cooperative has been the high bidder for the right to graze stocker calves on Wah’Kon-Tah. “It’s generally what makes us the most money.”
Prairie grasses are warm-season species that thrive during the summer months. Fescue, the predominant pasture grass in Missouri, is a cool-season grass that grows well in spring and fall but falls off in the summer. Calves grazing prairie grasses in the summer have a higher average daily gain than those on fescue, which allows Schaaf to bring them to market sooner and at a time when demand — and price — is typically higher.
University of Missouri master’s student Kaylan Kemink uses radio telemetry to track the movements of prairie chickens at Wah’Kon-Tah. Such monitoring allows the project managers to determine what habitat the chickens are using.
Although stocking rates are lower when grazing patch-burned prairie grasses, the increase in forage value means that supplemental feeding isn’t necessary, reducing input costs for farmers, says Joe Horner, an economist with the Commercial Agriculture Program at the University of Missouri.
“Producers save on labor involved with supplemental feeding, as well as the expense of installing crossfencing for rotational grazing,” he adds.
Those involved with the restoration project also see potential for creating a new market and capturing a premium for beef grazed on native prairie grasses.
“We already have dolphin-safe tuna and shade-grown coffee, and we’d like to find a way to market the wildlife benefit from well-managed farms,” Max says. “Consumers are becoming more conscious of not only where their food comes from but how it’s produced, and we think this is an area with possibilities.”
Joe says for a number of shoppers, such “green traits” resonate more than price, and there’s a willingness to pay more for a product that meets personal beliefs about conservation.
“There is a segment of consumers completely turned off by commodity beef production,” he says. “The question is how big is that segment and how much does it cost to create a marketing channel to capture the value in delivering what those consumers want?”
Randy Arndt, who is site manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch in north-central Missouri as well as Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, says he sees an opportunity for recreational landowners to team with cattle producers and use patch-burn grazing to improve habitat for grassland wildlife.
“It’s just one more tool that we use to help manage the prairie to try to increase the diversity,” he says. “Probably the worst thing you can do is to just leave it alone.”
Restoration efforts are paying dividends, as this successfully hatched clutch attests.
While many questions remain, what is already apparent is that with well-managed prairie available, the prairie chicken can again become a fixture on portions of Missouri’s landscape. In the past two and a half years, Max’s team has relocated 240 prairie chickens from Kansas to Wah’Kon-Tah, with another 60 hens and their chicks to arrive this July. So far, the birds’ mortality rate has closely mirrored that of a wild population.
“We figure about a 50 percent annual mortality rate, so a 3-year-old prairie chicken has met its life expectancy in every measure,” adds Max.
In the spring of 2009, the males established a booming ground, which they again returned to this past spring. Females are successfully nesting and hatching off young. Such early success has Max and his recovery team hopeful that the sights and sounds of booming chickens will again become a spectacle that Missourians can enjoy in many regions of the state. It’s a sentiment that cattlemen Dusty Schaaf shares.
“It’s still got to pencil out because 100 percent of my income is agriculture,” he says. “Whatever it takes, though, I’m open to it, as long as it works financially.”