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Save the Last Dance

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

grass clumps are not available, prairie chickens will not or cannot make do with other types of vegetation.

The new technique allows landowners to provide habitat for prairie chickens while continuing to graze their fields. There's no sacrifice in yield, either. Cattle grown in patch-burned pastures gain as much weight as those grown in fields that aren't burned.

The Conservation Department has acquired several prairies to provide needed habitat for declining species like meadowlarks and prairie chickens. These include Taberville, Bushwacker, Niawathe and Hi Lonesome conservation areas. Prairie chicken survival, however, primarily depends on private landowners.

Kind of a Treasure

Jay Albertson awoke many a morning in the 1920s to the booming of prairie chickens on his north Missouri farm. He said the birds were a common part of the landscape until the mid 1940s, when they declined considerably. By the 1950s, the prairie chickens were gone.

In 1993, however, the Conservation Department began a restocking program to bring prairie chickens back to north Missouri. They released 50 birds in the high, treeless landscape near Mystic. The next day, some prairie chickens showed up on the farms of Albertson and his neighbor, Bill Swisher.

About 20 birds remain on the Swisher farm, but Albertson's population has dwindled to just three males--no females. In 1999, Albertson had high quality video footage made of the booming prairie chickens. Now that his birds may be gone, he says the tape is "kind of a treasure."

"We have a lot to learn from private landowners," said Gough. "They're in a position to observe the birds day in and day out. This gives them a perspective we lack, so we listen carefully to what they're saying."

Communities cash in

A Conservation Department wildlife biologist helped organize the prairie chicken viewing opportunity at the Dunn Ranch. In 2002, the prairie chickens attracted 140 viewers and 146 viewers in 2003. A visitor survey revealed that more people came from 100 miles away to view the prairie chickens than from 20 miles away. In fact, people traveled from as far away as Arizona and New Mexico for the chance to see the mating dance of prairie chickens.

"We even had a gentleman from Russia," Grace said. "He was on the faculty at Maryville. He said when he was growing up, he had very few books, but one he was fondest of was on North American birds. It contained

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