Missouri groups try to save state prairie chickens

HATFIELD, Mo. - There are few reasons the Missouri Department of Conservation's Bill Graham gets out of bed and on the road at 3:00 in the morning. One of them is the birds and the bees at the Missouri-Iowa border.

"It is a very special privilege considering how rare prairie chickens are," he said of the reason he woke up early.
 
He, along with Randy Arndt of the Nature Conservancy, spent hours on a recent brisk morning in a blind to give 41 Action News an exclusive front row seat to the prairie chicken mating ritual.
 
"I was thinking how I am getting to sit here and see these unique birds do the dance in the light," said Graham. "It's very pretty out. The sound is all around. You have to hear it in person to appreciate how all encompassing that sound is around you. Once upon a time, people would've stepped out of their cabins and heard thousands of these birds making the sound across the morning sky. It's very loud when there are 15, 18 birds around us and the blind. But how must it have been when there were hundreds and thousands of these birds on a hilltop making this haunting serenade of sorts?"
 
 
While the sound echoes all around, in the pitch darkness, we're not exactly sure how many of the animals surround us. But as the sun rises, we get a better look.

In all Arndt counts 17, maybe 18 prairie chickens, all males, there to find mates. While they wait and call and dance for hours, no females ever show up.

When many of us think of endangered species, we likely think of threatened animals in far away places. But what if we told you there's a species so compromised right here in Missouri that they're one catastrophe away from being wiped out?

Why they're worth saving

It's hard to imagine it now, with the skyscrapers and the streetcar, but just a couple centuries ago, Kansas City was the heart of Missouri's tall grass prairie. If you could see downtown KCMO in the early 1800s, you would've seen grasslands, buffalo, and yes, an array of the now threatened prairie chickens.

Go north to the Missouri-Iowa border and it would have been even more true. Hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens would have roamed the land and flown through the sky. Today that same area - 154,000 acres worth which is now known as Dunn Ranch - is home to just 200 prairie chickens. Over the last two centuries, farms and cattle ranches decimated their numbers.

"Prairie chickens are such a unique creature," said Graham. "They're colorful, in the spring they do this dance and make this wonderful sound. They are a very unique creature. They are so worth having on our lands in the first place. But they also represent the other prairie species. All the grassland species, birds, butterflies, some wildflowers, they are all scarce because native prairie is scarce. The prairie chicken represents a lot of prairie species. We want the prairie chicken to be healthy because if it is healthy and in good numbers then the grassland ecosystem is healthy. That's good for water, for soil, for a lot of different types of wildlife."

And humans who use all of these resources for farming, ranching and pure drinking water.

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Terra Hall can be reached at terra.hall@kshb.com.

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