Prairie chickens make new stand at Wah’Kon-Tah

El Dorado Springs, Mo. -- On a recent spring afternoon, Kansas-born prairie chickens stepped cautiously onto Missouri soil bearing radio transmitters and biologists’ hopes for this endangered icon.

The first two prairie chickens scanned the open skies above Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. Suddenly they fluttered skyward, prompting a dozen more of the black and white speckled birds to leave the release box and glide over a knoll, out of sight but not beyond the telemetry equipment that will track them through the seasons.

The birds were captured where greater prairie chickens are plentiful in the Smoky Hills near Salina, Kan. But the species is critically endangered in Missouri.

Their release this spring at Wah’Kon-Tah will help the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) restore prairie chickens to a onetime stronghold and refine management to help all native grassland birds in decline.

“I firmly believe we will succeed,” said Len Gilmore, an MDC wildlife management biologist and prairie expert.

Prairie chickens and many grasslands birds are in peril because only small fragments of Missouri’s once-vast tallgrass prairies remain. The football-sized birds, a member of the grouse family, have dwindled from hundreds of thousands statewide in the early 1800s to less than 100 native birds in scattered flocks today.

But a year-round radio telemetry study at Wah’Kon-Tah is showing MDC biologists what types of ground cover prairie chickens prefer for nesting, raising broods, feeding and evading predators. That’s guiding how the area’s virgin prairie remnants and restored native grasses and wildflowers are managed with prescribed fire, grazing, haying or unaltered growth.

“Our telemetry has shown that we can’t just walk away from a prairie and let it sit,” Gilmore said. “You’ve got to do something every year to create disturbance and habitat diversity. The more diversity we can provide, the more success we’ll have.”

A small flock of prairie chickens lived in the Wah’Kon-Tah area north of El Dorado during the 1950s and 1960s, Gilmore said. But in recent decades they vanished, similar to how other small flocks at other prairie remnants in western and northern Missouri have declined.

Scientific studies at the Wah’Kon-Tah area aim to reverse that trend. That includes re-establishing a flock there as part of a translocation study, with almost 400 prairie chickens trapped in Kansas and released beginning in 2008. They are fitted with leg bands and a small, lightweight radio transmitter before release. That enables trackers using radio receivers to plot the birds’ movements through various habitats, and they can move miles in a day.

The 3,030-acre Wah’Kon-Tah is the largest protected tallgrass prairie complex in the eastern Osage Plains ecosystem. A large portion is owned by The Nature Conservancy, a private, non-profit conservation group. MDC also owns tracts and manages the prairie in cooperation with private partners.

An effort in the 1990s to re-establish prairie chickens at Wah’Kon-Tah with birds captured in Kansas was unsuccessful, Gilmore said.

But this time, changes in habitat management may make this effort successful and a model for long-term prairie chicken restorations statewide.

“We’re seeing evidence of successful reproduction,” Gilmore said.

Prairie chickens in early April use hilltop spots called leks as “booming grounds,” where males make a booming sound and drum their feet on the ground to attract females in a sunrise mating ritual resembling a dance.

Males are booming this spring on the Wah’Kon-Tah’s traditional lek sites and females are checking them out, said Stasia Whitaker, an MDC wildlife management assistant. Whitaker tracked the birds in recent years with radio telemetry. Prairie chickens also used the leks last year, and hens with chicks were spotted afterward. Some birds captured during studies do not have leg bands, which indicating they were hatched and raised at Wah’Kon-Tah.

“We’ve been doing lots of habitat work before releasing birds, and that’s helped them stabilize,” Whitaker said.

Managers used to simply let prairies grow, or they would hay large tracts or conduct large-scale prescribed fires.

But Gilmore and the MDC crew are using management practices on smaller, 40-acre units so prairie chickens have easier access to both open areas for feeding and dense cover for shelter. They need sheltered nesting cover but also open areas that are easier for chicks to travel in and find food.

Using prescribed fires followed by cattle grazing is boosting habitat diversity and the use of Wah’Kon-Tah by various bird species. One strong trend, the study shows prairie chickens like “high-clipped” grass where cover is mowed or grazed about a foot tall.

“Chicks and adults both have a hard time getting through grass when it’s tall and thick,” Whitaker said. “But at 10 to 15 inches, they can conceal themselves and also see out and watch for predators.”

Tree removal at Wah’Kon-Tah and on neighboring private farms also improves open vistas for prairie chickens. But it’s a mosaic of habitats with varying grasses and wildflowers that helps prairie chickens thrive as seasons change. Fire, grazing and haying are all tools to create that diversity.

“The more good habitat we can provide,” Gilmore said, “the more prairie chickens will survive.”