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Conservationists Consider Value of a Bird in the Prairie

It was just one bird with one nest of eggs, but to Dr. Curtis Long, the greater prairie chicken discovered recently on his native prairie at Butler is a reminder of what once was.

“I hayed this field in the 60s and 70s, and it wasn’t unusual to see eight or 10, maybe 20 prairie chickens,” he says. “In those days, we would see them every time we hayed. But I haven’t seen any in years.”

Missouri’s once thriving prairie chicken population declined with conversion of prairie to row crops and fescue pastures. According to the Missouri Prairie Foundation, only 90,000 acres of remnant native prairie remain in Missouri – down from 15 million acres before settlement.

Since 2003, however, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been helping landowners preserve prairies through its Grassland Reserve Program (GRP). The program offers payments to landowners in exchange for easements that ensure that prairies and other grasslands will never be tilled or developed.

Harold Deckerd, NRCS assistant state conservationist, said Missouri’s GRP payment rate changes annually. In 2013 it is $1,420 per acre south of the Missouri River and $1,415 per acre north of the Missouri River. Deckerd said NRCS has purchased 37 GRP easements in Missouri, protecting 4,300 acres of grassland. About half of those acres are prairie land.

Dr. Long signed his GRP contract in 2011. He and the other GRP participants retain ownership of their land. They can cut hay from it, graze it and use it for hunting and other recreation activities. But they must maintain it as grassland. And if they sell the land, the easement goes along with it to the new owners.

That’s just fine with Dr. Long.

“I love the program because it’s the only way I know to preserve the prairie forever,” the 78-year-old physician said. “My interest has always been in prairies and conservation and resources.”

Dr. Long, who leased the prairie for many years before purchasing it in 2010, said the 280 acres usually yields 600 bales of hay “without applying a drop of fertilizer.”

NRCS District Conservationist Alan Hayes and Scott Sudkamp, a wildlife services biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) documented 94 species of plants on the site. And at least for a while, one prairie chicken occupied the site.

Sudkamp said the single bird made the nearly 50-mile trek from Wah’Kon-Tah prairie near El Dorado Springs, where it had been fitted with a radio transmitter and released after being trapped in Kansas in 2012. The transmitter allowed Sudkamp to locate the bird and her nest of 11 eggs, nine of which hatched. Unfortunately, the hen eventually was killed by a predator.

Chris McLeland, MDC private lands program biologist, said it’s hard to know why the prairie chicken left Wah’Kon-Tah, but the fact that she chose Dr. Long’s hayfield to make her nest is an indication of the value of GRP and other programs that preserve and enhance wildlife habitat.

“Even though it is one individual bird, it sought after and found the appropriate habitat, which was on a GRP easement,” McLeland said. “It demonstrates the importance of these programs.”

NRCS State Conservationist J.R. Flores said that GRP is a good example of a program available today that will pay dividends for future generations.

“As an agency, we share the landowners’ satisfaction of knowing that what we do today will make a difference forever,” Flores said.