By Andy Ostmeyer
LOCKWOOD, Mo. — Mike Theurer remembers that when he was a youngster, prairie chickens were abundant on the native grasslands around the family farm.
“I know there was 100 within three or four miles,” he said, describing several populations. “I’m pretty sure there was 50 by my house in the 1960s.
“I am going to say that 10 years ago, there were 30. Four or five years ago, I’ll say, there were 20,” said Theurer, who is now 59.
So far, he’s seen fewer than a dozen this year.
His observation is borne out by state studies of the greater prairie chicken in Missouri that show the birds are declining steadily.
“There were around 3,000 birds in the late 1980s; there were about 1,000 in the 1990s,” said Max Alleger, leader of the prairie chicken recovery effort for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Statewide, the estimate is now around 400 to 500 birds, he said.
“They are continuing to decline at a rapid rate,” Alleger said. “We are probably within a decade of losing the birds if we don’t take ... action.”
As one of those steps, Alleger and others are promoting a new state-federal program that will compensate landowners who set aside cropland to develop habitat for prairie chickens.
The initiative is similar to other U.S. Department of Agriculture set-aside programs that pay farmers not to plant crops on lands that are highly erodible, or that could serve as a buffer for streams or as wildlife habitat. That program, Alleger said, was expanded last year to include prairie chicken restoration efforts in Missouri and in other states.
The government payments, over a 15-year contract, would come just as farmers are negotiating operating loans for next spring’s planting, said Joe Horner, a University of Missouri Extension economist. Sign-ups are through local USDA Farm Service Agency offices.
“With all the banks tightening up on credit, this is an opportunity for some people to rent some of their worst (land) in exchange for a nice solid income,” Horner said.
The program is limited to designated areas in 11 Missouri counties, including Barton, Dade, Jasper, Lawrence and Vernon.
“It is not available on a whole-county basis,” Alleger said. “It’s not a lump-sum, upfront payment. It’s an annual payment.”
Landowners must pledge a minimum of 20 acres to develop habitat for the birds, restoring native or other cool-season grasses. Some help may be available for removing trees more than 10 feet tall. Payments are calculated on a county-by-county formula, and will be around $65 an acre, Alleger said.
“That’s fairly competitive with 2008 cash rental rates,” Alleger said. “Landowners really are key to the process. We realize they can’t give up productive land for nothing.”
Alleger said lack of suitable ground cover for nesting females is one thing that most limits the proliferation of the prairie chicken in Missouri.
The ideal nesting area would have native prairie grasses between 6 and 17 inches tall, so any land set aside for the chickens would have to be grazed or high-mowed periodically by the landowner as part of the contract.
Such habitat also would benefit bobwhite quail and other species.
Alleger said the state is working to build core areas of prairie habitat in conjunction with partner groups such as the Missouri Prairie Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. Some of those core areas are being built around the Shawnee Trail Conservation Area in Barton County, Bushwhacker Lake Conservation Area in Vernon and Barton counties, and Prairie State Park in Barton County.
“These are highly mobile birds,” Alleger said. “We think they need 4,000 to 5,000 acres of good nesting and brood-rearing cover on a 10,000-acre landscape, and that’s hard to find in Missouri. We have tried to identify the last, best landscapes.”
Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
“They’re part of our prairie heritage,” Max Alleger, the prairie chicken recovery leader with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said of the greater prairie chicken. “They represent the native prairie that once covered a third of Missouri.”
By Andy Ostmeyer
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