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Important Places for Eagles and Chickens

My job as director is interesting and challenging, and, at times, it can be very satisfying. One such time occurred last December.

Walter Crawford, executive director of the Wild Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, invited me to help release a young bald eagle on the grounds of the State Capitol. The eagle recently completed a successful rehabilitation from a damaging injury and was ready for his return to the wild. It was my exhilarating privilege to be the last person to hold him as the eagle took wing and soared free.

The improving population of eagles across North America is perhaps the best-known endangered species success story and is a tribute to the hard work of many in the conservation community.

Unfortunately, efforts to help threatened or imperiled species have not always produced successful outcomes. Today, we are troubled by the plight of the native greater prairie chicken. Two hundred years ago, a third of Missouri was prairie, and hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens inhabited the state. In the spring, one could hear the birds performing a unique and awe-inspiring courtship ritual of “dancing and booming,” which to this day warrants an early morning visit to a viewing blind. Sadly, the opportunity is now available at only a few select sites. As prairie habitat declined, so did the prairie chickens, and today as few as 500 birds remain statewide.

Last fall, I was inspired by the passionate words and commitment to action of dedicated scientists and conservationists meeting to reverse the downward slide for this special endangered bird. It is a daunting challenge. The formula for success will require much more than just some special management work on a few acres of publicly owned land.

Many acres of prairie landscape must be restored and protected, regardless of who owns them. The bird’s unique habitat needs require the commitment of public and private landowners, communities and supportive conservation partners, as well as the spark of some new ideas. A coalition of partners must form based on a collective, shared commitment. Missourians have a rich history of grass-roots, community-based species recovery, and they remain supportive of efforts to conserve and restore threatened animals and plants.

The Department of Conservation is committed to promoting and managing Missouri’s diverse habitats to support all species of native fish and wildlife. As we learn more about these habitats each year, we benefit a broader diversity of species dependent upon each unique type. Today’s Missouri Natural Areas System includes 182 excellent examples of high-quality, sustainable natural communities, such as prairies, streams, wetlands and more. An important part of our mission is to work with other government and nongovernment organizations to identify and create more of these special areas.

Working for the recovery of a single species like the bald eagle or the greater prairie chicken is exciting and satisfying. But achieving long-term success requires commitment to management practices benefiting multiple plants and animals that contribute to the complex relationships among wild things that we simply call “nature.”

There is a role for each of us in this effort. Some of us may devote our professional lives to the task, while others may elect to volunteer their free time to research efforts or to conservation practices on their land. Still others may choose to pass on expanding knowledge to friends and neighbors, and some of us may be most comfortable contributing financially to recovery projects. Each of us must choose where we fit in the balance for coexistence between diverse fish, forest and wildlife resources and man’s desire for progress and prosperity. The challenges are great, but the outcome will say everything about our ability and commitment to provide real stewardship of things wild and free.

John D. Hoskins, Director

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