Chickens for the Prairie and Prairie for the Chickens

March 23, 2010 11:40 AM


The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2009 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.


By Margaret Berglund
Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife assistant Kevin King held a two-foot-tall branched antenna and carefully rotated it, listening for beeps amid the static emitted from a handheld receiver, searching.
"He's right over there," King said, pointing.
Len Gilmore, a department biologist, approached the area from the side. The mood was tense. The men proceeded slowly, watching the vegetation ahead carefully. But the only movement was from the breeze rustling the grass and shrubs. 
"We should be right on top of him," King said.
Gilmore eyed the vegetation, looking for the camouflaged shape of a Greater Prairie Chicken. 

What he saw instead, beneath a small sumac shrub, was a marble-sized radio transmitter resting on atop a pile of disheveled feathers. The only other trace of the bird was a silver leg band—without a leg. What killed this prairie chicken?
"It was probably a hawk," Gilmore said, explaining that raptors usually sit and eat their prey on the spot. A coyote would have carried the chicken off and scattered the pieces.
The men had just found one of the 200 prairie chickens brought from Kansas and released in recent years on the Wah'Kon Tah Prairie, a Nature Conservancy preserve in southern Missouri. Of those 200, 150 had been radio collared.
Of the collared chickens, now only 50 remained.
These relocated birds plus about 100 more in northern Missouri are all that are left in the state.
Out on the prairie a mood of managed disappointment prevailed as the scientists gathered data on the kill site, marking the location with a GPS and noting the surrounding plants.
Then they headed back to the truck to look for more birds, hoping to find a live one.
How things used to be
Over 100 years ago when the railroads were built across the prairies, workers signed contracts that guaranteed they would be fed prairie chicken no more than three times a week, said biologist Brent Jamison. The birds were plentiful then, a cheap and easy food-source. They would have numbered in the millions.
Now these birds are on the brink of extinction in Missouri. Losing the prairie chickens means that the state is losing its prairies, Doug Ladd of the Nature Conservancy and other experts say. The Great-Plains and prairies of the Midwest are not only an important part of our past, but also support an enormous amount of species diversity and sequester carbon at high rates. Losing the prairies could be like losing a link in a chain.
The chickens aren't the only prairie species that are hurting, said Ladd. There used to be two different species of jackrabbits in the state, and both of those have been gone for over 30 years. The numbers of quail are down. Insects are suffering too.  The Regal Fritillary Butterfly is endangered, and the American Burying Beetle is in trouble.
Consequently the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Nature Conservancy and other groups are teaming up to save the prairie chicken. A healthy chicken population signals healthy prairies.
Re-establishing the Greater Prairie Chicken in Missouri is a priority for the Nature Conservancy. Ladd is head conservationist for the Missouri chapter of the Nature Conservancy. But to bring the chickens back managers need to know why they are disappearing.
"There is no smoking gun," Ladd said about the source of decline for these birds. 
What the chickens need
Out on Wah'Kon Tah prairie Gilmore took a stuffed prairie chicken out of his truck and put it down amid the grass and plants. The bird was almost impossible to see. He pointed out that the vegetation was at the right height so the bird's head hovered just above the plants and it could see what might be coming.
The early prairies had lots of space. Thick stands of tall-grass prairie reached as high as 12 feet, but the majority of the landscape was much different.
Before European settlement, bison roamed the land, trampling and grazing plants, and Native Americans set frequent fires to make it easier to hunt and to move the herds of bison around. After a fire the prairie would grow back lush and attract grazers. The fires served two purposes for the prairie chickens--they kept down the number of trees and they kept areas of the prairie open, enabling the chickens to watch for predators.
Gilmore picked up the stuffed chicken, moved to the other side of the truck and put it down again. Over there the vegetation was tall and thick, the chicken's head was well below the cover and the space between plants was cramped.
In the first area, the conservation department had used several techniques to mimic the conditions of early prairies. They burned the area, grazed it with cattle and went over it with a mower set at prairie chicken head height. 
Gilmore moved the stuffed chicken back to the first side of the truck to emphasize the difference. The contrast between the sides was clear.
Living in a landscape ruled by bison worked well for the birds. The plant cover was the right height, and the bison brought with them and left behind a host of insects for the chickens to eat. 
The beginning of the end
This friendly regime didn't last once European settlers began to arrive. Sharron Gough, another conservation department employee, teaches the public about the prairie chickens and their status. She has compiled a brief history of the Missouri Prairie Chicken.
According to Gough, it didn't take long for European settlers to realize the soils of the prairie were rich and good for growing crops, and they quickly converted prairie land to row crops. At first this was good for the birds. The crops provided easy pickings of grain, and scientists estimate that chickens hit their highest population when 25 to 30 percent of the prairie was in row crops. 
The crops provided food, cover and enough room for the chickens to move around, but they weren't adequate for brooding and nesting habitat. As the number of acres in row crops increased, nesting success decreased and the numbers of the birds fell. 
Bison, another previously plentiful animal of the prairie, was hunted to near extinction, but hunting was not what drove the chickens to their current status as an endangered species in Missouri. The state banned hunting of the birds in 1904. 
The decline of the prairie chicken is puzzling because its populations haven't always been in decline. Except for the initial introduction of row crops the chicken populations were in decline from the beginning of European settlement until the 1950s, when their numbers grew again.
The story of a graph
Brent Jamison's office, like most conservation department buildings, had several animal heads on the wall and skulls on the shelves, but perhaps the most impressive display was that of a wild turkey. Just the skin with feathers of the back and tail hang on the wall in a brilliant display of browns and blacks. Jamison stepped into the office carrying the printout of a graph and sat behind his desk.
The line of the graph looked like the profile of a jagged mountain. It showed the relative population of prairie chickens in Missouri over time.
For most of the year these chickens are masters of hiding with their camouflaged feathers, but in the spring the males gather in areas called leks or booming grounds. Here they fan out their tail feathers and dance, turning first one way and then the other.   They inflate pouches on their neck to make a strange booming noise that carries for miles. Hence the name booming grounds. The female chickens come to watch the festivities and pick a mate.
The yearly ritual is a convenient time to count the chickens. Since the same chickens return to the same booming grounds, the event provides a reliable way to compare numbers from year to year even if the conservation department can't count every chicken in the county.
Every spring since the early ‘40s department biologists have counted the chickens they saw on the state's mating grounds.
Chicken populations were falling in the ‘40s where the graph starts. In 1955 they start to go up and come to a peak in 1965. Then they begin a precipitous descent to the present day.
Jamison pointed to the end point on the graph, "This is 100 native chickens left," he said.
"The Prairie Chicken is like a canary in the coal mine for the prairies," he said.
Fescue comes to Missouri
Soil conservation programs started about the time that the graph starts its climb in the ‘50s, Jamison said. These programs paid farmers to take marginal land out of production, which left it for prairie chickens and other wild species. Many times this land reverted to native prairie. But the first round of programs ended 10 years later, when the graph first begins its descent.
The descent is slow at first, maybe even flat, but then it steepens and drops to today's low. 
Ladd blames the latest decline on habitat loss, but this isn't your typical habitat loss. Missouri is not a state ruled by urban sprawl. Much of the state is still farmland, and prairie chickens co-existed with farms, crops and grazing successfully for decades. 
The Eslinger family provides an example of what happened. Lewis Eslinger's grandfather first moved to their farm on the east side of Wah'Kon Tah Prairie in the 1921. 
On their 640 acres the Eslingers still have a small section of prairie that they hay every year. A tall man with white hair, Eslinger stood in the field and remembered harvesting soybeans in the ‘60s and prairie chickens coming in behind the harvester to pick up the scraps. In the ‘70s the price of fertilizer increased from $100 a ton to $1,000 a ton, and the family could no longer afford to grow row crops. He wondered if that hurt the prairie chickens.
They replaced the row crops with fescue and began raising cattle. 
In the early ‘80s Eslinger's first son was born and Eslinger got a job at the post office to bring in additional income. They still raise cattle on fescue, something Eslinger can do while holding another job elsewhere.
Plenty of land may still be farmland like the Eslingers', but its use has changed, Ladd said. The days of row crops and hayed prairie that allowed the prairie chickens room to live are largely over. In their place is fescue.
Fescue, an exotic European grass, was brought to the United States in the late ‘60s. Great for raising cattle, fescue may be the last straw for the prairie. 
A former neighbor of Eslinger's, Ron Plain, is now an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri. Fescue has several advantages over prairie and crops, Plain said. Once established it doesn't need to be reseeded and it grows virtually year round. On a cattle production basis it outcompetes prairie. 
With fescue's introduction, prairie and croplands were tilled and replaced with fescue. The Nature Conservancy estimates that 1 million acres of Missouri prairie went under the plow to plant fescue.
Fescue provides no cover for the chickens, and it doesn't support a large insect population. A prairie chicken in a field of fescue is an easy target for predators.
Two more obstacles
With the loss of habitat has come an increase in predators, making the chickens doubly vulnerable to predation. European settlement ended not only the large roaming herds of bison but also the frequent fires set by the Native Americans. Without the fire, trees and woody shrubs compete with the grasses and herbs of the prairie. These woody plants provide habitat for predators such as hawks, coyotes, raccoons and skunks, and obstruct the prairie chickens' views. These animals prey not only on adults and chicks but also eggs.
Wah'Kon Tah is on the eastern edge of prairie. The prairies exist because they lay in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Closer to the mountains where the rain shadow is most profound is the short-grass prairie on the plains of eastern Colorado. Kansas and Nebraska have medium-height prairies. In Missouri, as the effect of the rain shadow lessens and more wet weather comes in from the Gulf of Mexico, the tall-grass prairie takes over. Move farther east and the trees take over. 
Wah'Kon Tah prairie rides the edge of this push between trees and grass, and right now when the factors favoring prairie are down, like fire, the trees have a tendency to push in on what was once prairie. The prairie chickens are one of the signs that the prairie is losing this fight, too.
What's left for chickens
Pre-European settlement, prairie covered about 30 percent of Missouri. This was 15 million acres. Of this only 90,000 acres are left in prairie, and of this total only about 25,000 are under protection by the government or groups like the Nature Conservancy.
Most of the privately owned prairie is hayed every year. Haying prairie leaves better habitat for chickens than fescue, but hayed prairie is not as good as prairie managed to be habitat. But there are exceptions. 
Ted and Sue Thoreson own 1,200 acres, which they run with the help of their grown children. Many of these acres are still prairie, although the Thoresons do have pasture planted in fescue, too. 
Ted Thoreson doesn't hay his prairie; he grazes it. And he tries to get the most out of it by using not only cattle but also sheep and goats. The Thoresons manage to make a living for the family off the farm without an outside income. 
Thoreson believes the cattle are good for prairie chickens. He feels strongly about conserving the prairies and open spaces.
"We're not going to use it all up--what's left for us if we do?" Thoreson said about the prairie as he drove out to the ranch.
Grazing keeps the plants low and the ground open for the birds but also leaves enough cover for them to hide. This style of management creates better habitat than hayed land, which doesn't leave enough clumps of vegetation for cover.
"I want to leave my grandkids something that's unique, and this view out there is pretty unique," Thoreson said from the top of hill on his property overlooking Wah'Kon Tah Prairie and neighboring lands.
The Thoresons originally sold 320 acres to the Nature Conservancy in 1973. That was the beginning of what is now Wah'Kon Tah Prairie. Since then they have sold over 2,000 acres to the conservancy.
The conservancy bought more pieces from other land owners, making a total of 3,600 acres plus 500 acres owned by the state and another 600 acres on private land under conservation easements. This means over 4,000 acres of contiguous chicken habitat are protected.
The conservancy and the conservation department have a joint agreement to manage the land to preserve the prairie. Together they carefully manage this property with a mixed regime of burning, mowing, haying and a little grazing. 
When the Thoreson's originally sold their land to the conservancy they continued to lease it for grazing, but after 10 years the conservancy and conservation department changed their management strategy and removed grazing from the regime. Only recently has the department added grazing back into the mix.
Ted Thoreson has a dream that one day the whole region will be managed as a unit using grazing as the primary tool. While the conservancy sees the potential value in grazing, managers are wary about using too much of it too quickly. 
Any future for the prairie and the prairie chickens in Missouri will have to involve private land owners because the 25,000 acres spread over the state will not be sufficient to maintain populations of the birds, said Gilmore. Prairie chickens don't migrate. They stay in the same area year round and the need large contiguous pieces of land to sustain a population. How large they need is unknown, but 4,000 continuous acres is at the low end of the estimates.
The good news is that the prairie chicken is listed as endangered only in Missouri. Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota all have viable populations. But their plight in Missouri is like a warning. The Missouri birds are the most vulnerable populations and the first to go.
The search continues
Back on Wah'Kon Tah Prairie the search to find a radio-tagged prairie chicken continued. In the truck, Gilmore and King deactivated the transmitter from the dead bird and turned on the receiver to find another signal. They quickly zeroed in on another beep amid the static. Less than 75 yards away they stopped the truck again and got out with the hand-held antenna. 
The same scenario began to play out. King pointed out the direction given by the antenna. Gilmore approached slowly from the side, hoping to flush a bird. 
"He should be right in there somewhere, right in that brush," King said. "He should be right under us."
The biologists scanned the ground in front of them, and King took another step.
Suddenly the bird burst from the grass a foot in front of King. Tail feathers fanned, and the wings thrummed. The bird glided out across the prairie, the heavy body buoyed by short, sharp wings. It gave some more beats of its wings, then glided with the wings slightly bent down, and then it was gone over the horizon, behind the tall-grass prairie.
Later that day they found one more bird, also alive. All three were within a hundred yards of each other. 
Gilmore took a scientific view of the day's findings.
"When we have a mortality it's disappointing, but it's exciting to try to find out what caused the mortality," Gilmore said. "The whole idea is to gather as much information as possible on what is causing mortality."
Advised Gilmore: "Don't base too much on one mortality."
You have to look at the whole picture, he said.


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