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Prairie chicken habitat being lost; Burning, grazing and ‘human activity’ threaten birds’ future

The low, booming sounds produced by greater prairie chicken cocks accounts for the common reference to their leks as “booming grounds.” … On a quiet spring morning, these sounds can carry as much as two miles across the open prairie, serving as an audible beacon to prairie chicken hens. – Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Web site, www.kdwp.state.ks.us

MANHATTAN – Kansas State University biologist/researcher Robert Robel believes prairie chickens are an indicator of a tallgrass prairie’s health. A large number of the birds – also known as prairie grouse – means the habitat is thriving.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Robel’s seeing in the Flint Hills.

“We’re looking at a declining population of prairie grouse,” he said. “It can’t be turned around. I’m quite pessimistic about it.”

Jim Pitman, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, agrees with Robel that burning and grazing – measures that help preserve the grasses of the prairie – and “increased human activity” have destroyed a large portion of the natural habitat of greater prairie chickens.

“The population of prairie chickens is declining in the Flint Hills and further eastward because of burning and intensive stocking … of livestock over the past 15 to 20 years,” Pitman said. “They burn and then keep the grass short (through grazing). The first part of May is when prairie chickens start nesting and so there’s not enough grass for protection.”

Robel said the number of prairie chickens depends on nest success and chick survival. Prairie chickens nest only in the standing vegetation of the past year, which stands about 18 inches tall. Burning of the prairie in the spring destroys that old vegetation and the birds then have nowhere safe to nest.

“They will nest elsewhere, but then the nests are exposed to predators,” said Robel, who has been studying prairie chickens since 1960.

Skunks, raccoons, coyotes, foxes and snakes like to invade the birds’ nests, while hawks, foxes and coyotes feed on chicks that haven’t learned to fly.

“Chick survival is almost nil,” he said, citing research showing only 11 percent of prairie chickens live to the next season in southwest Kansas.

In the 1980s, before intensive burning and grazing, hunters harvested about 90,000 prairie chickens a year in Kansas. Today, that number has fallen to about 12,000.

“So the population has probably gone down 75 to 80 percent because the nesting habitat has been lost,” he said.

Robel said burning and grazing won’t be halted because of the impact of the cattle industry on the state’s economy. In 2005, cattle in Kansas produced $6.1 billion in receipts and 104 beef packers harvested 9.1 billion pounds of cattle from Kansas and surrounding states, according to the Beef Cattle Institute at K-State.

Additionally, cattle gain more weight and nutrients if they graze on a burned pasture.

“So it’s an economic factor,” he said.

Pitman said “urban sprawl” that fragments the rolling prairie with housing developments and infrastructure also has disrupted the natural habitat of prairie chickens.

“If the land is fragmented, it’s no longer usable for chicks even though the vegetation may look the same,” he said.

Robel said prairie chickens are sensitive to human activity and each needs about a thousand acres to survive.

“If you want to set aside land (to protect them), you would need 250,000 to a half-million acres,” he said.

Environmentalists are concerned the building of wind farms will adversely affect the Flint Hills ecosystem. Robel said K-State has been collecting data on wind farms and their effect on the greater prairie chicken for two years.

“It’s too preliminary to draw conclusions,” he said, adding the $960,000 study is expected to continue for another two years.

The study, he said, is looking at nest success, chick survival and adult survival at sites in north-central Kansas, the mid-section of the state and throughout the Flint Hills.

Robel said the prairie chicken population not only indicates the health of the prairie but also mimics what’s happening with other grassland birds, such as plovers and dickcissels.

A study done from 1990 to 1995 compared nests on burned and unburned pasture south of Manhattan. The study found 27 grassland bird nests in the burned fields and 327 nests on the unburned land.

While concerned about the decreasing population of prairie chickens, Pitman believes efforts to change grazing and burning practices may turn that around.

“It’s not yet an endangered species,” he said.

By Jan Biles

The Topeka Capital-Journal

6 July 2008