Missouri once had hundreds of thousands of prairie-chickens. But numbers have tumbled steadily in recent decades, with less than 50 birds confirmed this spring in two isolated populations. Less than one-tenth of one percent of Missouri’s original native prairie remains, and those remnants are scattered.
The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) reports that counts of Missouri’s endangered prairie-chickens on spring leks, or mating grounds, remain dangerously low. In April, biologists checked leks in the state’s two remaining geographies that have prairie chickens.
A hopeful finding is that prairie-chicken numbers held steady this spring at leks on or near The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Dunn Ranch in Harrison County. Kendall Coleman, MDC private lands conservationist, counted 16 males and eight females at a lek on Dunn Ranch. Coleman also found six males and three hens on a lek on private property. That 33-bird total is the same number of prairie-chickens counted in the area in 2018.
The population had dropped to three males on leks in 2012 due to extreme weather during nesting seasons. Habitat improvements and birds trapped in Nebraska and released at Dunn Ranch from 2013-2017 helped the flock rebound.
“That’s a good sign that we’ve had stability for a year beyond the last translocation in 2017,” said Max Alleger, grassland biologist for MDC. “That’s absolutely hopeful.”
Prairie-chickens are iconic grassland birds. The males strut, dance, and make booming sounds to attract females in spring mating rituals atop leks. Missouri once had hundreds of thousands of prairie-chickens. But numbers have tumbled steadily in recent decades, with less than 50 birds confirmed this spring in two isolated populations. Less than one-tenth of one percent of Missouri’s original native prairie remains, and those remnants are scattered.
Dunn Ranch offers wildlife remnant and restored native grasses and wildflowers as habitat. The ranch, and MDC’s nearby Pawnee Prairie Conservation Area, are key components in the Grand River Grasslands, a broad partnership between MDC, TNC, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, private landowners, and other private and public partners. The purpose is to restore functioning grassland ecosystems in cooperation with ranchers and farmers within the geography.
Key in the Grand River Grasslands is MDC and partners providing expertise, along with funds through federal and state conservation programs, to help private landowners make land management changes. Those improvements can benefit both prairie-chickens and farm profit, such as removing unwanted trees and adding native grasses to cattle grazing and haying pastures. “We continue to have some progress,” Alleger said. “It’s taken an amazing amount of work.”
But there is still concern that the prairie-chicken population in the Grand River Grasslands remains low enough that a severe weather event could imperil recovery.
A historic population of prairie-chickens is close to extirpation at the Taberville Prairie Conservation Area in St. Clair County in west central Missouri. Extirpation is when a population ceases to exist in a geography. Biologists confirmed four males and three females at a Taberville lek this spring. That compares to six males confirmed on the lek in 2018.
“We’re worried about the ability of the birds in the Osage plains to sustain a population much longer,” Alleger said.
Taberville Prairie is within MDC’s Upper Osage Grasslands priority geography, an area with public and private partnerships to boost all prairie species in cooperation with agriculture producers. Prairie-chickens have failed to establish a sustained population at Wah’ Kon-Tah Prairie Conservation Area, owned by TNC. That area had received trapped and released prairie chickens in prior years.
Historic flocks in north, central, and southwest Missouri have dropped in numbers and then vanished from their local geography in recent decades.
“We haven’t been able to create enough usable grassland habitat,” Alleger said. “We likely need thousands of acres of contiguous, well-managed grasslands that meets the prairie-chicken’s needs, and we just don’t have this in Missouri.”
Prairie-chickens can utilize well-managed grazing lands with grasses such as timothy, redtop, and smooth brome, and they find food on harvested crop fields in winter. But non-native grasslands usable by prairie chickens for nesting, brood rearing, and over wintering are scattered and a relatively small percentage of the rural landscape. When grassland birds are limited to islands of useable habitat, and severe weather events knock down populations, there are no neighboring birds to replace them in the habitat. Biologists in Missouri and nationally are also noting significant reductions in other grassland birds such as bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, Henslow’s sparrows, and upland sandpipers.
“Grassland birds as a group are the most imperiled birds in North America,” Alleger said.
Private property owners interested in grassland habitat improvement projects that can benefit both birds and farm profits on their land may contact their local MDC office. Information is also available at https://mdc.mo.gov/property.