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Prairie chickens may be making comeback in Missouri

By Kim McGuire
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/03/2009

Those involved in the effort to protect Missouri's dwindling prairie chicken population say the birds may be rebounding after a couple of lackluster breeding seasons.

Already, at the Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch — one of the state's longtime prairie chicken strongholds — credible sightings have been reported recently, giving managers there hope the birds are in better shape as they head into next year's crucial mating period.

"We are seeing more birds now than we did last spring, which is an indication there's been reproduction," said Randy Arndt, the Conservancy's Grand River Grasslands site manager. "While this past spring was wet, we didn't get the kind of 5-inch rainfall that just ruined nesting events the year before."

According to a Missouri Department of Conservation telemetry study, no broods made it to adulthood at Dunn Ranch in northwestern Missouri last year — a fact chalked up to the harsh winter and localized heavy spring rains.


Because of concerns about the Dunn Ranch population, the Nature Conservancy canceled earlier this year the popular prairie chicken viewings where bird watchers can view the birds' elaborate courtship rituals from a blind.

Arndt said it was too soon to say where viewings would resume next spring. That call, he explained, will probably be made sometime in February after monitoring the birds this winter.

"We're really hoping to hold the viewings," Arndt said. "We're certain that they don't interfere with the chickens. But this year, we just couldn't take any chances."

About 93 percent of the prairie chickens' original range in Missouri is gone. And the prairie chicken seemed to be following suit. Today, fewer than 500 birds are estimated to remain in the state.

That's why the Department of Conservation embarked last year on a five-year project that involves taking prairie chickens from Kansas and relocating them to the Wah' Kon Tah Prairie, which is also owned by the Missouri chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

For the past two years, department biologists have moved the birds in two phases — the males in the spring and the hens in late summer — in hopes of enticing the birds to stay put.

The strategy, which has been tested in Wisconsin and Minnesota, involves moving males first so the birds will have time to establish new homes — called leks — before females and their chicks arrived.

So far, about 200 birds have been moved, and only about one-quarter of them remain alive, conservation officials confirmed this week.

Most of the confirmed deaths have been attributed to predators such as coyotes.

Although the relocated birds' mortality rate has been disappointing, it comes close to corresponding to that of birds in Kansas, said Max Alleger, the department's grassland birds coordinator. That would seem to indicate that the relocated birds don't face many more additional challenges than native birds encounter.

"We're not that far off the mark," Alleger said.

The first year birds were moved to Wah' Kon Tah, the males ended up at an existing lek. Since then, however, they have begun to establish new leks — a good sign the birds are laying the foundation for future reproductive success.

Also promising is the fact that relocated birds are nesting at their new digs. This year, conservation officials discovered seven nests and hope to find next year that chicks born at Wah' Kon Tah are reproducing as well.

Alleger and other conservation officials say the key to protecting Missouri's prairie chicken population is restoring lost habitat.

At both Dunn Ranch and Wah' Kon Tah Prairie, the Nature Conservancy has been setting small, carefully controlled fires to help clear out small, woody plants and restore the native prairie grasses preferred by the birds.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has also been working with landowners who have property near prairie chicken leks, on similar land management strategies, Alleger said.

Department biologists will return to Kansas this spring for more trapping and will probably be using more drop nets to help catch more birds at once and lessen the amount of time the team spends on prairie chicken habitat.

"I like to think the birds are settling into the landscape in Missouri," Alleger said. "That's not a scientific opinion, but we hope that's what our work will show over time."
 

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I've always wanted to make the trip to see them during the mating seasons.

I hope they do pull through. Our county that our farm is located had them 20 year or go. Some of the locals have stories to tell about them.
 

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Wonder if they will spread out of not.... Kinda like pheasants up around Chillicothee......


Pretty cool though..:eek::
 
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