Missouri Witnesses the Return of a Native

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A handful of birds are the vanguard of a prairie restoration partnership between government agencies, private conservation groups and citizen conservationists.

This prairie chicken was not thrilled about being the center of attention when it emerged from a trap near Salina, Kan. It was among dozens of birds captured in an area where the species still thrives and brought to Missouri as part of the Show-Me State’s prairie chicken restoration program. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation photo)TABERVILLE, Mo.-The puzzle of which came first, the chicken or the egg, could be a metaphor for the prairie chicken and the prairie. One without the other is unthinkable, if not impossible, yet Missouri is close to having prairies without their iconic birds. The Missouri Department of Conservation is trying to bring prairie chickens back from the brink of extirpation, partly for the birds’ own sake but also to give meaning to the ecosystem that spawned them.

The latest effort to restore prairie chickens to western Missouri is a two-phase reintroduction program. Phase one began in late March, when Missouri biologists and volunteers traveled to the Smoky Hills region of central Kansas, where prairie chickens still thrive. There they began trapping the stocky, foot-tall birds. They focused their efforts on “leks,” flat, sparsely vegetated hilltop sites where generations of prairie chickens have gathered to perform their annual mating rituals each spring.

At three such sites, conservationists set out hundreds of feet of 18-inch high chicken wire fencing, arranged in Vs so as to funnel strutting birds into wire cages. After collecting these birds, workers fitted female prairie chickens with tiny radio transmitters and released them. Males were hustled off to holding pens and taken to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, a landscape in southwestern St. Clair County that is owned by The Nature Conservancy of Missouri and managed in cooperation with the Conservation Department.

A certain number of prairie chickens that are moved to new areas immediately fly away. By moving males to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie immediately, biologists hoped to establish an anchor population of birds that were acclimated to their new home and attached to it.

Conservation Department crews released 45 male prairie chickens at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. Within days, 11 had relocated to other prairie remnants as much as 20 miles away. Others fell to predators. In all, eight males remain at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie.

“This was the first time we had used this two-phase release method, so it was hard to know what to expect,” said Private Land Conservationist Max Alleger, who leads the prairie chicken recovery effort. “We hope substantially more of the birds we move will stay where we put them. We wish the results were better right now, but on balance, I would say we are satisfied. It takes time to establish a population that views the local landscape as home. We hope to get better as we gain more experience.”

Phase two of the relocation program focuses on female birds. The radio collars placed on hens earlier enable biologists to track them down at night, when they are easiest to approach. Crews using chemical glow-sticks to keep track of and signal each other move in silently and drop large nets over sleeping birds, along with any chicks hatched since April. These birds are rushed to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie.

At last count, Conservation Department crews had captured and relocated 12 hens and 3 chicks.

“We are having good luck catching hens, but the chicks are in good shape and seem to scatter pretty quick,” said Alleger.

He said crews will continue catching birds until approximately 50 hens and chicks have been moved to Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. By 2010 the first birds hatched and reared at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie by translocated birds will join their parents on leks. Until then, Alleger and his trapping crews are not likely to know how their efforts are working.

“Our experience so far makes it pretty clear that it will take several years to see significant results,” said Alleger. “Our plan is to do this for five years. We can stop sooner if results don’t justify continuing.”

Although the relocation program is an important facet of efforts to keep the prairie chicken from dying out in Missouri, Alleger said it will be futile unless government agencies, citizen conservation groups and private landowners create a significant amount of habitat for the birds.

“There is no such thing as a little bit of prairie chicken habitat,” said Alleger. “These birds need large expanses of open land to thrive. We have only relatively small, isolated patches of prairie left in Missouri in public ownership. That means that public-private partnerships are absolutely critical to success for prairie chicken restoration.”

Alleger said financial, technical and logistical assistance are available to help landowners in western Missouri create prairie chicken habitat while still maintaining their lands’ productivity.

“You don’t have to build a fence around land and never touch it again,” said Alleger. “Prairie chickens can coexist with farming and other land uses. Sometimes restoring their habitat is as simple as burning small areas each year. We work with farmers and ranchers to find ways to make room for prairie wildlife while still making money.”

Alleger said prairie chickens are only the most spectacular of a whole suite of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and other prairie life that stand to benefit from more natural management of Missouri’s open lands. Bobwhite quail, secretive songbirds, rare butterflies, unique reptiles and amphibians and a host of other wild things also need prairie to survive.

“Prairie is one of the least-appreciated natural systems in Missouri,” he said. “It isn’t like craggy mountains that jump out and grab your eyes as you drive past. You have to stop and get out of your car to appreciate the majesty of grassland and the astonishing variety of plants and animals that live there. Half of Missouri historically was grassland of some kind. We stand to lose this treasure, piece by piece, if we don’t act now to save all the pieces.”

For more information, contact Alleger at Max [dot] Alleger [at] mdc [dot] mo [dot] gov, phone 573-660-885-8179.

-Jim Low-