Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Saving the Greater Prairie Chicken in Missouri

Greater prairie chickens, which are closely related to grouse, used to exist in the millions in the Great Plains. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands lived in Missouri alone before the 1930’s. However, when commercial farming took over the region in the early twentieth century the prairie chicken’s habitat was almost completely wiped out. Prairie chickens require large expanses of tallgrass prairie to survive and cannot exist on agricultural land. Today, less than seven percent of Missouri’s tallgrass prairie still exists and there are only about 500 prairie chickens left in the state.
Greater prairie chicken male
A subspecies of the greater prairie chicken known as the heath hen was once extremely common in New England. Easy to hunt and vulnerable to predation by introduced dogs and cats, the heath hen was a staple of colonial life in the region until it was finally driven to extinction on the mainland by 1870. Conservationists in Missouri are determined not to let the same happen to the greater prairie chicken.

In an effort to keep this native bird and its booming call from disappearing forever, a partnership of 20 state agencies called the Missouri Grasslands Coalition is working on a long-term project to restore the habitat of the prairie chicken and bring its numbers back into the thousands. This project has been going on for many years already as it requires overcoming several major obstacles to be successful.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the habitat itself. Tallgrass prairie is a unique ecosystem that cannot be used for farming or grazing; this presents a problem in a state like Missouri where 93% of all land is now privately owned. To overcome this, the MGC is working with landowners to provide prairie chicken habitat in exchange for subsidies.

Another issue is maintaining a breeding population. Because of the scarcity of tallgrass prairie, greater prairie chicken flocks only exist on “islands” throughout the Great Plains and the birds rarely migrate more than 10 miles away from where they were born. To establish populations, Missouri Department of Conservation officials are importing birds from Kansas, where they are more numerous, and placing the birds in tallgrass prairie conservation areas.
If you’d like more information about saving the greater prairie chicken, please contact the Missouri Department of Conservation here

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