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.
By Andy Ostmeyer
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