Save the Last Dance

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

need open land from horizon to horizon, unbroken by trees where predators may lurk. They also need diverse grassland with vegetation of different heights and various amounts of residual material on the ground for nesting and travel lanes.

According to Larry Mechlin, a biologist with the Conservation Department who specializes in prairie chickens, the first half of the 20th century was relatively beneficial for the species. Soon after Schwartz did his study, however, populations in north Missouri plummeted dramatically.

"World War II ended, soldiers returned and put more land into production," Mechlin said. "Within five years, the north Missouri prairie chickens were gone."

Missouri, Iowa and Illinois had once been the heart of prairie chicken populations. Now sizable populations are found only in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas. A subspecies found in Texas, the Attwater's prairie chicken, is likely the rarest bird in the world.

Prairie chickens can readily survive in an agricultural environment, Mechlin said. Amosaic of grazing land and grain crops actually benefits the birds. However, that kind of habitat is disappearing fast. For example, nearly 1 million acres of Missouri's landscape have been converted to forest in the past decade. Old, unmanaged fields grew up in cedars. Some lands were intentionally converted to trees.

Fescue also took a toll. Its dense undergrowth chokes travel lanes and discourages abundant and diverse insect life. Prairie chickens depend on insects for protein.

"The problem doesn't just affect prairie chickens," Mechlin said. "All grassland species are affected. Meadowlarks have suffered a 45 percent decline. Upland sandpipers are also at risk."

Improving the habitat

Sharron Gough has spent 15 years managing prairies to improve habitat for prairie chickens and other prairie dependent species for the Conservation Department. She works with the Grasslands Coalition, a consortium of public and private landowners, foundations and government agencies that work together to expand prairie habitat.

The coalition is experimenting with a variety of management techniques to encourage prairie chicken survival. Removing trees and creating predator exclusion fences have proven effective.

A promising new technique, called patch burning, encourages the maintenance of good prairie chicken habitat on private pastures. In patch burning, a third of a pasture is burned each year. Cattle, attracted to the fresh growth of grasses, concentrate in the newly burned sections. This allows the grass in the other sections to grow in tall clumps. Prairie chickens nest in the grass clumps. In fact, if

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