Saving prairie chickens in Missouri

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ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Mo. -- During the early morning hours on Missouri's grasslands, the sounds of nature can be heard. The boom and cackle of the great prairie chicken stand out from the rest.

The prairie chicken population has been on the decline since the mid-1900s. There are now fewer than 100 left in the wild. Those with the Missouri Department of Conservation are working at Taberville Prairie to save the bird from statewide extinction.

"We've seen a constant decline," Max Alleger, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said. "Numbers are low enough now that we're not sure that we have a viable reproducing population to maintain genetic diversity."

Alleger says the biggest problem for the prairie chicken is habitat loss.

"Despite our best management of really great habitat here on our prairies, we don't have enough good habitat," Alleger said. "We end up with little islands of really great habitat that are located too far apart. The prairie chicken needs an expanse of open land which our modern Missouri landscapes just don't provide."

In order to maintain the habitat, the conservation department uses practices like cattle grazing and controlled burning to create the type of landscape needed to attract the birds.

“It’s important that we try to replicate the patterns of disturbance and recovery that existed on the prairie really prior to European settlement when herds of bison or elk would follow fires across the landscape and graze some patches intensively," Alleger said.

Along with grazing and burning, biologists also work closely with private landowners to clear trees and help expand the prairie ecosystem. Wayne Morton started working with the department in the early 2000s. With the help of federal grants, he has converted more than a thousand acres to native grassland to help benefit the prairie chicken and other species.

"This land right behind us you can tell used to be a soybean field and we had a small patch of prairie," Morton said. "About six acres here on the north end and about 10 acres on the south end that were native prairie so the strip in between we planted native grass and it's done very well."

For Morton, the prairie chicken is an animal he has admired for years.

"Back in '99, I had the largest booming ground in the state of Missouri," Morton said. "Just over a quarter of a mile over here in my wheat field, 49 booming males. And their ritual of booming is just amazing. They're just a neat bird."

He hopes that with the help of other landowners, the prairie chicken will start to rebound

"I'd like to see the birds increase in numbers," Morton said. "We've still got a few birds here and we hope that they'll have better nesting success if they would have better nesting success we may still be able to hang on to a population here. It's a long shot, but several of the farmers in this area are quite interested in seeing the prairie chicken come back."