A Win-Win for Prairie Chickens and Ranchers

One bright, windy morning last March, Dade County rancher John Kremp and his nephew, Jonathan, unloaded 100 cows and their calves onto a half-section of native prairie. The gates clanged, the calves bawled, and the boss cow led the herd into new grass. The scene looked and sounded like an ordinary day on the ranch.

John's delivery, however, was anything but ordinary. He was keeping his end of a special partnership designed to double Stony Point Prairie Conservation Area’s acres of prime prairie-chicken habitat.

Chickens Need Their Space

The history of this partnership begins with the birds. Before European settlement, native grasslands covered nearly half of Missouri, and prairie-chickens numbered in the hundreds of thousands. When settlers arrived, they hunted the chickens for food and trade, and eventually farms and towns replaced most of the prairie. By 1906, the birds’ population in Missouri was too small to support a hunting season. Today, fewer than 500 birds scattered in isolated flocks remain in Missouri, and the prairie-chicken is listed as endangered in the state.

Although prairie-chickens continue to thrive in some parts of their historic range, such as Kansas and Nebraska, they do so only where the habitat suits them. Suitable habitat has very few trees, which provide hunting perches for hawks and owls, as well as travel lanes for the mammals that prey on prairie-chickens and their eggs.

Suitable habitat also means open, mixed grassland complete with patches of bare ground and thick cover. Such habitat provides safe places for the birds to court and nest, and its open nature gives chicks room to forage for bugs and seeds. To top it off, prairie-chickens need this mix of suitable habitat on at least 4,000 acres scattered within a larger area of 10,000 acres (see Partners in Flight sidebar).

Back to the Future

One of the things that makes the partnership between John Kremp and the Conservation Department so special is the management approach, which is based on a grazing regime called patch-burn grazing.

This approach mimics our native grasslands’ historic rhythms. Before settlement, periodic fires swept the grasslands, clearing them of dead growth and encroaching trees. Following the fires, new grass shot up, attracting herds of buffalo and elk. After these herds grazed heavily on the lush, new growth, they moved on, leaving the grazed land to rest and recover. This combination of disturbance and rest creates the mixed grassland that