Eagleville, Mo. – With a whirring of wings, the last of 100 greater prairie chickens released this spring at Dunn Ranch Prairie flew over the horizon and settled into native grassland. The bird, a hen, bore a small radio transmitter that will let biologists track it's movements through nesting and brood rearing seasons. Translocating prairie chickens trapped in Nebraska is one component of the Missouri Department of Conservation's (MDC) program to restore this state-endangered species.
MDC crews trapped the prairie chickens in western Nebraska where their populations are strong. The birds were transported to Missouri the day of their capture. Crews released them in Harrison County at The Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch near leks, the places where the birds mingle and mate in spring. The releases are part of a two-state, public-private prairie conservation program in the Grand River Grasslands.
"This went really well this spring," said Kendall Coleman, MDC private lands conservationist. "We set out to get 100 birds, and now we've released our last one. We're really pleased with how it's gone."
The prairie chicken translocation program is a partnership between MDC, The Nature Conservancy, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Nebraska Game and Parks. MDC's Pawnee Prairie Natural Area and the Conservancy's Dunn Ranch in Harrison County are anchor points for the program. Trapped Nebraska birds have also been released across the state line in Iowa's Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area. The birds were trapped at private ranches in Nebraska.
"Our Department appreciates the hospitality and generosity ranchers showed in allowing our staff to work on their property," said Max Alleger, MDC grassland bird coordinator.
Prairie chickens are endangered in Missouri and Iowa due to habitat loss. The rich prairie soil was converted to crops or pastures with non-native grasses. Less than one percent of Missouri's prairie remains and only in scattered parcels. Remnant prairie chickens declined sharply in numbers in recent decades due to habitat scarcity and poor weather conditions during nesting seasons. They were absent in Harrison County until birds released in Iowa in the early 1980s flew across the state line and began using historic leks. But harsh weather during nesting season dropped numbers sharply. So a translocation program began to boost numbers and add genetic diversity.
In conjunction with releases, MDC manages public conservation lands to enhance all species of plants, insects, fish and wildlife native to prairies.
"If you can provide quality food and cover for prairie chickens, you're providing fairly good habitat for all of the species," said Dave Hoover, MDC small game coordinator.
The Department and conservation partners also work with private landowners in the Grand River Grasslands region to enhance habitat favorable for prairie chickens to nest and raise broods. A variety of native grasses and wildflowers kept in varying succession stages seems to be helping, along with favorable weather, Coleman said.
"We're seeing birds on more leks, the birds are more distributed," he said. "I'm optimistic that we're going to have a good nesting season."
MDC staff and partners plan in the coming weeks to do a count of males using the leks to get a firm idea of population trends. Hens released this spring were outfitted with radio transmitters, and tracking them will provide data on survival and nesting. Science-based management plays a key role in the prairie chicken program.
For more information on prairie chicken programs in Missouri, visit nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/greater-prairie-chicken.