In April, 45 greater prairie chickens were reintroduced to sweeping grasslands in northern Missouri. The release is only the most recent conservation effort to help the threatened birds rebound in a region where they once thrived.
These efforts to bolster prairie chicken populations and improve native grassland habitats hold considerable hope for the conservation of the species. Greater prairie chickens once populated grasslands throughout the central United States. However, the birds’ population has declined dramatically — they can no longer be found in several Canadian provinces or U.S. states they once called home. Farms, strip malls, and suburban neighborhoods have swallowed most of their habitat. The species is now endangered in Missouri, where less than one percent of the state’s original grassland remains. Hundreds of thousands of birds used to roam the state’s grasslands but only a few hundred survive today.
The 45 released prairie chickens were originally trapped in Nebraska, one of the few states where their populations still flourish. The birds were released in The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Dunn Ranch Prairie that’s part of a 70,000-acre restoration area called the Grand River Grasslands on the border of Missouri and Iowa.
This is the second of three prairie chicken releases expected to take place over a three-year period to restore the region’s prairie chicken population. The cooperative effort between TNC, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), and Iowa appears to be progressing well. “I’m hopeful and encouraged by what we’ve seen so far,” said Davie Hoover, an MDC wildlife management biologist in a recent report. “We’re seeing that we’re getting some survival and some reproduction.”
Release of the prairie chickens occurred just in time for their famous mating season. Each spring, the males strut, inflate air sacks, and emit their haunting mating call — known as “booming” — to attract females. The rare display draws birdwatchers to the Midwest each year.
Twenty of the released birds were females. Biologists radio-collared the hens in order to gather information about their habitat preferences during nesting season. “We’ll see their preferences for nesting locations, raising their young, and how successful we are at relocating birds brought back into the population,” said Hoover in a separate statement. Biologists use this information to help guide ongoing grassland management efforts throughout the region.
Both Missouri and Iowa have been trying to restore grasslands and bolster prairie chicken populations for a number of years. Another conservation effort translocated about 450 birds into western Missouri over a 5-year period. The project ended in 2012, but the prairie chicken population appears to be holding steady at around 50 birds. Biologists say that this indicates successful mating and nesting seasons. “You have to have pretty good reproduction to get the population to sustain itself,” said Len Gilmore, a wildlife management biologist with the MDC.
Ongoing conservation efforts in the region are helping to ensure the bird population continues to thrive. “We are just doing a variety of management practices to provide the habitat that the prairie chickens need,” said Gilmore. Efforts like controlled burning, tree removal, and managed livestock grazing help maintain the birds’ prairie habitat. Prairie chicken abundance is an important indicator for overall grassland health. The promising results from these conservation efforts could indicate healthy prairie habitats. Healthy grasslands are also important for humans. Prairies help clean water, protect against floods, and provide a constant food source for livestock.
The bird’s cousin, the lesser prairie chicken, made national news earlier this year after being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing upset some government officials in southern states, like Kansas, who worried that it could hurt economies by halting land development. Increased interest in conserving both of these prairie species may one day mean the return of a vital wildlife habitat to the U.S. landscape.
This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society, April 28, 2014.