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Bringing the Boom Back to Missouri

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

It is still dark as I drive down the deserted streets of Browning on a chilly April morning. I am meeting George Shurvington, a conservation resource technician who is releasing eight prairie chickens, reintroducing them to their historic range of northern Missouri.

The greater prairie chicken has been considered a rare bird in Missouri for much of this century. When settlers first came here 200 years ago, millions of prairie chickens inhabited the northern and western parts of the state. Many Missourians remember seeing prairie chickens through the 1950s. In the 1960s, however, the population plummeted.

Cause of the decline is primarily loss of habitat. The prairie chicken population in Missouri now is estimated at only 2,000 birds. The eight birds Shurvington is releasing this morning are part of an ongoing Conservation Department effort to return prairie chickens to our state's grasslands.

As I open the passenger door of George's muddy grey Dodge Ram truck with the familiar Conservation Department triangular logo on its side, I hear wings rustling inside two large wooden boxes in the pickup bed. The birds, trapped in Nebraska, have had a long night of travel. We begin driving toward the designated release site, a private pasture on the Linn-Sullivan county line.

The decline of the prairie chicken population mirrors the loss of our state's native tallgrass prairie. Less than 1 percent of the original 12 million acres of native prairie remains. Extensive cultivation of native grasslands severely reduced the prairie chicken's nesting and brood-rearing habitat. The control of prairie fires that naturally maintained grassland habitat contributed to the bird's decline. So did overgrazing and excessive hunting. Prairie chickens once were prized game birds in Missouri, explains George, but their decreasing population brought the hunting season to a close in 1906.

In an experimental program, the Conservation Department released prairie chickens in north-central Missouri in the springs of 1993, 1994 and 1996. In 1996 the total release was 98 birds, half of them male and half female. The birds came from Kansas and Nebraska.

The Conservation Department released the birds onto Missouri lands historically used by prairie chickens and determined by biologists to support good habitat. Most of these sites are privately owned. Landowners and farmers in north-central Missouri take pride in the unique opportunity to play a part in a successful conservation effort.

Larry Mechlin, the research biologist heading up this experimental release program, says, "Only through the establishment of a population that

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