The Semi-Triumphant Return of the Prairie Chicken


They're back! - EARL RICHARDSON
  • Earl Richardson
  • They're back!

Happy news from Prairie Chicken Land, aka Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie in far western Missouri, just outside El Dorado Springs: The prairie chickens that workers from the Missouri Department of Conservation captured in Kansas last year and transported east are alive and booming and, best of all, reproducing.

We realize that the phrase "transported east," not to mention the bland reassurances of prairie chicken happiness, makes this sound like Stalinist propaganda, but there is proof that this is not a cover-up by the MDC. Nobody's sure how many prairie chickens are at Wah'Kon-Tah right now, but it is an indisputable fact that there are now than there were five years ago when the relocation project started.

Back then, the number of prairie chickens at Wah'Kon-Tah was precisely zero.

Max Alleger, grassland bird coordinator for the MDC, said in a statement that he was feeling "hopeful" about the continued existence of the chickens at Wah'Kon-Tah.

"Perhaps our biggest question," he said, "is whether intensive management can in the long run balance the fact that our grasslands are limited in size. Do we have enough grasslands to support prairie chickens on the landscape?"

That is, indeed, the main problem for prairie chickens in Missouri, and the reason why the birds had all but disappeared from here. One hundred fifty years ago, nearly one-third of the state was prairie. Today less than one half of one percent of that remains.

But, thanks to radio transmitters they've attached to the birds and a process called telemetry, MDC crews have been able to monitor prairie chicken activity and figure out the optimal conditions for survival. It turns out the birds like grass that is tall enough for them to hide in, but short enough so they can poke their heads up to check for predators. They don't like trees.

The prairie chicken trackers have also learned that the birds like to travel much farther than they previously thought. Although prairie chickens generally like to stay clear of signs of human civilization, some of the Wah'Koh-Tah birds were willing to travel 20 or 30 miles across roads and fences, as long as they could get to where they were going. The boldest chicken in the flock went back to Kansas for the winter and returned to Wah'Kon-Tah in time for spring mating.

Somehow, the Wah'Kon-Tah prairie chickens discovered ancient leks, or mating grounds, that haven't been used for decades. They also discovered another flock at the Taberville Prairie Conservation Area ten miles to the north. Biologists theorize that the two flocks have been mingling in order to preserve genetic diversity. It seems to be working: This year, the Wah'Kon-Tah hens have produced clutches of eleven to fourteen eggs, which the biologists deem a healthy amount.

This year was the last spring MDC crews would be importing prairie chickens from Kansas. Now the biologists will have to wait and see how the existing birds do. The telemetry will allow them to get a better idea of how many prairie chickens are actually out there, and how many of them stay at Wah'Kon-Tah and reproduce. Which is, of course, the whole point. The prairie chicken is the bellwether of the entire prairie ecosystem. If a prairie chicken can survive, anything can.

"It's important that all the habitat pieces are lined up right," Alleger said. "Prairie chickens are a worthwhile species. We're trying our level best to keep them in Missouri."

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