Is Time Running Out?
The truth of these words becomes vivid as we reflect upon the changes brought upon the land as we built our nation. Leopold's words are appropriate when we contemplate the reduced range of the greater prairie chicken. Once a major game bird in Minnesota, this special concern species is now confined to grasslands in a few western and north central counties.
The greater prairie chicken was closely tied to the settlement history of Minnesota and was once as common as blackbirds. Old timers recall, "We would take the horse-drawn wagon out east of town in the fall and shoot a pile of chickens," and, "Every spring morning I would wake up to the cooing and booming of prairie chickens. The sound seemed to come from every direction."
Prairie chickens were native to the Mid-American prairies but extended their range far into Canada and the north-central states when forests were cleared and cultivation moved northward into the prairies. Sadly, the once extensive range and high populations of the late 1800s have been greatly dimished because of changing land use. Where early accounts described winter flocks containing hundreds of birds, flocks now number less than fifty. However, these rare birds are still present where the right habitat exists, and there is hope their population can be increased with the proper management.
Before civilization changed the fields of bluestem, blazing star and cone flowers to corn and wheat, about half of Minnesota was prairie. Early pioneers found oceans of waving prairie flowers and grasses, some growing over head-high, extending as far as the eye could see. These prairies were spectacular, vibrant places!
Few people realize that remnants of those pioneer days still exist. Many of us have only seen them in pictures or heard about them from history books.
The resonant boom of prairie chickens gathered for their ritualistic mating display was a sound commonly heard by settlers on the great expanses of Minnesota prairies. This colorful bird makes sounds on the courtship grounds variously described as cooing, tooting, drumming, stamping, booming, cackling and whooping. Put them together and the sound can be likened to "blowing on a conch shell."
The Present and Uncertain Future
Today only a few remnants of native prairie remain to host the dance of the prairie chicken. They are almost, but not quite, gone. Bison and elk have long since vanished completely from our Minnesota prairies.
Along Glacial Lake Agassiz beach ridges in northwestern Minnesota, grasslands remain on soil that has been considered too sandy and/or wet for cultivation. In the northcentral range, chicken habitat is provided by sedge meadows and tame hayfields.
In this remaining prairie chicken habitat many farmers can no longer afford to use these lands for hay and pasture since there are greater potential returns from small grain and row crops.
The future of the prairie chicken in Minnesota is uncertain. This fascinating bird is considered to be in a more precarious position in Minnesota than the timber wolf which is a federally threatened species.
As the prairie chicken goes, so does the prairie. The prairie chicken can be used as an "indicator species" to tell us the quality of prairie habitats. A population of prairie chickens requires large tracts of suitable grassland habitat. As long as there are prairie chickens there will be prairie. And our surviving prairies will be stimulating, beautiful places for people and prairie life!
Through the years, the prairie chicken population has been hanging on because of a chain of circumstances which resulted in the preservation of grassland habitat. The scattered wetland projects of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR ) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), although not planned specifically for prairie chickens, have played an important role in their survival. In the early 1970's, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) launched their prairie chicken protection initiative in northwestern Minnesota. Since that time the Conservancy has acquired key prairie tracts.
Unfortunately native habitat on private lands has continued to decline. Much remains to be done to preserve critical lands in the present range to ensure the future of prairie chickens and other prairie life.