ST. LOUIS — Coyotes and other predators have picked off many of the 45 male prairie chickens that were relocated from Kansas to a prairie in western Missouri this spring in hopes of boosting the state's plummeting population.
Still, Missouri Department of Conservation officials remain upbeat about the prairie chicken translocation project — which has been described by biologists as the last stand for prairie chickens in Missouri. Today, fewer than 500 birds remain in the state, which was once a species stronghold.
Recently, department crews transported 24 hens and 27 chicks to Wah' Kon-Tah Prairie near El Dorado Springs, where they joined eight of the Kansas male birds that remain there. Nineteen of the male birds have survived, but 11 of them moved on to other prairies.
"We are concerned about any bird that dies in this process," said Max Alleger, the department's project coordinator. "But keep in mind that birds like prairie chickens and quail face many threats and suffer high mortality rates no matter where they live."
About 93 percent of the prairie chickens' original range in Missouri is gone. And the prairie chicken doesn't appear to be far behind. The bird's existence signals healthy grasslands, and its demise signals an unraveling of the local ecosystem.
That's why the Department of Conservation this year embarked on a five-year project that involves taking prairie chickens from Kansas and relocating them to Wah' Kon-Tah, which is owned by the Missouri chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Department biologists opted to move the birds in two phases - the males in the spring and the hens in late summer — in hopes of enticing the birds to stay.
The strategy, which has been tested in Wisconsin and Minnesota, involves moving males first so the birds will have time to establish new homes — called leks — before females and their chicks arrive.
So far, that seems to be working with the hens — their chicks give them plenty of incentive to stay in one place. Of the 11 males that have moved on, some have gone to a prairie near Taberville, where one of the state's largest flocks resides.
The department is tracking the birds' movements by radio collars attached after capturing the birds in Kansas.
Already, the collars have yielded some surprising information, Alleger said. For example, one of the male prairie chickens has made an 80-mile round trip from Wah' Kon-Tah to Fort Scott, Kan., and back again.
Biologists didn't think any of the birds would travel such long distance - certainly not to return again.
"They are proving to be much more mobile than we previously thought," Alleger said.
Department staff will use the collars to help monitor the birds at least three times a week. Also planned are efforts to keep Wah' Kon-Tah suitable for the birds that prefer wide open spaces.
"We have an ideal habitat for the hens and their broods," said Stasia Whitaker, the Conservancy's Osage Plains land steward. "It is similar to where they have been in Kansas — open space, with a mixture of grass and vegetation heights but not thick and impenetrable for young chickens."
The prairie chicken recovery plan calls for 400 birds to be relocated from Kansas to Missouri over the next four years.
Success, Alleger said, will be measured in 2010. That's when the chicks relocated this year are expected to show up at the booming grounds, the site where prairie chickens mate.
Alleger said they'll continue to use the two-phase relocation strategy unless they believe it isn't working. "Since we are taking birds from another state, we want to do the right thing, just like we want to be good stewards of the land."