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Boom Or Bust

Boom Or Bust

Progress often comes at a very high price.

It's human nature to give people names to animals, especially those with individual identity; thus the last passenger pigeon of the countless millions that once blackened the skies was named Martha (after Martha Washington).

The doomed bird died alone in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden in 1914 at the incredible age (for a bird) of 29. The last heath hen, named Booming Ben (and Ben was not a "hen," but a cock) died sometime in 1932 on Martha's Vineyard, unattended and now largely forgotten.

A prairie fire in 1916 decimated the population from an estimated 2,000 to less than 200. By 1932 it was Ben alone, and then he was none.

There was a similar but less operatic finale in the 1980s when the last greater prairie chicken in the southern part of Missouri's Audrain County challenged an automobile and lost. His name was Fred for unknown reasons and he had more reckless courage than survival instinct. Perhaps his final act of defiance was a form of biological suicide -- an inexplicable imperative that if extinction is inevitable, play it out with a flourish.

I worked in Audrain County for a decade and did not know that it held a remnant of prairie chickens -- did not know such an animal existed or even what tallgrass prairie was. A North Missouri boy, I only knew corn and soybeans where once the land was given to Indiangrass, big bluestem and switchgrass.

Audrain County historically was tallgrass. So tall did the bluestem and Indiangrass grow that pioneer journals said a man could ride a horse through it and the horse would be hidden. But all that remained of that once flowing prairie were a few wisps of native grass along a railroad right-of-way. The rest had been plowed and the few remaining prairie chickens boomed on turned sod as they slipped toward oblivion.

Missouri Conservation Department biologist Don Christisen introduced me to native prairie and to the prairie chicken. It was Don who showed me a windswept booming ground in 1968.

My childhood home in north Missouri was in what had been tallgrass prairie when the settlers arrived in the early 1800s. But it was all gone by the time I moved there. In fact, of 30 million historic acres of Missouri tallgrass, only a few thousand remain. Even the rolling Green Hills of north-central Missouri where legendary biologist Charlie Schwartz did landmark prairie chicken research in the 1940s had given way to rowcrop agriculture and introduced grasses.

Oldtimers would say of the prairie grouse, "Yes, there was a lot of them when I was a youngster." But they lost the birds without being aware it was happening. No one consciously made the decision to do away with them. It was a sad and silent ebb. As my late and deeply lamented friend, South Dakota conservationist Tony Dean, wrote, "Americans treasure mountains, ancient forests, lakes and streams. Unfortunately, few stand in awe of grass."

Today the 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Kansas Flint Hills, established in 1996, is jointly owned by the National Park Trust, a private organization, and the National Park Service. While it's a start at preservation of the tallgrass prairie, the acreage is a postage stamp compared to the 400,000 square miles of historic tallgrass -- of which only four percent remains.

More than any creature, more than bison even, the prairie chicken is the symbol of the great grasslands of North America. You can put bison on fescue pasture and they will thrive. But take the pinnated grouse from its rolling native grasslands and it will wither and vanish. Prairie grouse must have prairie.

People have not been friendly to this little bird that fed settlers (and would-be gold miners like my great-grandpa) from the Midwest to the Rockies. Plows entombed the tallgrass prairie almost to extinction and made heavy inroads on mixed and shortgrass prairie, especially after pivot irrigation sucked greedily from the great Ogallala Aquifer and allowed corn in low-rainfall prairie areas.

Where prairie remained, it was cowed half to death. Busy bovine teeth wrenched nesting and roosting cover away from beleaguered chickens. Cows are not bison -- they don't migrate with the prairie wind; they eat and eat and then eat some more in the same overworked pastures.

The full Latin name for the greater prairie chicken is Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, with the last referring to the pinnae, those tufts of feathers so distinctive when the males boom.

Prairie chickens are members of the family that includes quail, pheasants, turkeys, other grouse, partridge and barnyard chickens.

Along with the greater prairie chicken in the genus Tympanuchus are Attwater's prairie chicken, the lesser prairie chicken and the extinct heath hen. The greater prairie chicken is the most widespread and numerous of the three remaining races of prairie chickens.

The greater originally occupied a huge area, as far east as western Pennsylvania, the southern parts of the Lake States (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the eastern parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and into northeast Texas. In the South, the bird extended into southern Arkansas and Missouri, southern Illinois and northern Kentucky.

Prairie chickens have been extirpated from their former Canadian range in the prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan. The last sightings were in Saskatchewan in the 1970s and between 1965-1977 there were only 15 sightings -- a sad decline from 1900 when there were an estimated one million prairie chickens in Canada. To explain the cause is easy -- only one-one thousandth of the tallgrass prairie that once existed in Ontario still remains.

As settlement crowded the birds they moved into new areas, even as their old environs shrank. They abandoned Pennsylvania and Ohio, but appeared in Montana, the Dakotas and the western parts of Nebraska, Kansas and eastern Colorado.

Most of the early work on the greater prairie chicken was done by two couples who were friends and were entwined in the early history of wildlife management. Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, from Wisconsin, and Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz, from Missouri, were instrumental in prairie chicken biology from the mid 1930s on.

There is a synchronicity to the world of early wildlife biologists. The Hamerstroms became great friends of Charlie and Libby Schwartz who, a few years later, became to Missouri's prairie chickens what the Hamerstroms were to Wisconsin's.

Aldo Leopold, rightly called the Father of Modern Conservation, was the Hamerstroms' professor at the University of Wisconsin. He had done research on prairie chickens in 1931 and steered the Hamerstroms toward the bird, even then in danger of extirpation. A few years later Charlie Schwartz worked with Starker Leopold, Aldo's

son, for the Missouri Conservation Department, and became the illustrator for Aldo Leopold's great book, A Sand County Almanac.

Charlie Schwartz wrote in 1945: "€¦different soil types have different inherent capacities for producing both plant and animal life, including prairie chickens, and that, given the same level of habitat development, the more fertile soils can produce and carry a higher population per unit of area."

Unfortunately, the more fertile soils also produce row crops and farmers depend on raising something that will make them money, not birds that won't.

Prairie chickens typically have a clutch of a dozen eggs and in common with most gallinaceous birds, like turkeys, quail and pheasants, can reproduce rapidly, but also suffer heavy mortality. It's a tough world for a little fowl whose chances of reaching maturity are less than 50 percent.

In addition to a world of predators, baby prairie chickens are beset by weather, summer and winter, and by disturbance -- especially that of man with fences, hedgerows and the ever-present plow. Hedgerows, once touted as the solution to wind erosion after the harsh Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, also became perches and travel lanes for both four-footed and avian predators.

Prairie chickens use trees for shelter at times, but woody vegetation needs to be at a minimum for the best conditions for the birds. They need expanses; they like to see the horizon. "Grassland is of vital importance to prairie chickens, the keystone in prairie chicken ecology," wrote the Hamerstroms in a 1957 technical bulletin on prairie chicken management -- the culmination of more than 20 years of research.

Grassland is a rarity today when prairie chicken habitat often also is adaptable to crops.

With massive irrigation booms watering dry land, farmers plow even the marginal grasslands and the chickens fade into what are euphemistically called "museum flocks." Often a "flock" is a pitiful handful of prairie grouse and then there is one and then there are none.

Ask Fred.

Ask Booming Ben€¦wait, you can't.

They're gone forever.

Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover $15); Bobs, Brush and Brittanies (hardcover $22); Tails I Lose (hardcover $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition $65). Available from Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H.

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