MNR’s prairie chicken plan offers hope for Wisconsin’s endangered species

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The future of large prairie chickens in Wisconsin took an optimistic turn on Wednesday as a new species management plan for the native bird has been approved by the Natural Resources Board.

The document, produced by the Greater Prairie Chicken Management Plan team at the Department of Natural Resources with input from its Stakeholder Advisory Council and the general public, calls for increased investments in habitat management and land purchases as well as a revitalized private lands initiative.

The new plan covers the period 2022-2032 and has an estimated cost of $1.34 million per year.

It represents what many call a last chance for Wisconsin birds.

“We’ve seen them decline and decline,” said Jim Kier of Wisconsin Rapids, a retired MNR wildlife biologist and advisory board member. “This plan offers a solid path and would do much more for the birds than we are doing now.”

As their name suggests, prairie chickens live in open, grassy areas. The species was historically found throughout Wisconsin and was most abundant in grasslands and oak glades.

As late as 1941 it was documented in all 72 counties.

But habitat losses due to increased agriculture, suburban sprawl, and forest encroachment have caused great changes in the range and abundance of prairie chickens. Today, the birds only exist in isolated areas of a small part of central Wisconsin.

In 2019, 205 male prairie chickens were counted in the state, the lowest in over 50 years and a continuation of a long-term trend of declining numbers as well as active leks.

The prairie chicken is listed as a species in greatest need of conservation in North America and was listed as Threatened in Wisconsin in 1979.

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The problem is not exclusive to Badger State. The species is listed as endangered in Illinois and Missouri and has already disappeared from Canada.

The grassland chicken challenges are part of a worrying trend for grassland-dependent species in general.

A study titled “North American Avifaunal Decline” and published in September 2019 in Science estimated that grassland birds have shown the greatest proportional decline (53%) over the past 50 years of any breeding biome. .

Greater prairie chickens gather on a breeding ground at sunrise April 19 at the Paul J. Olson Wildlife Sanctuary near the Wisconsin Rapids.

So as its habitat continues to be transformed into housing estates or row crops or reclaimed by forests, this is a watershed moment for Wisconsin’s prairie chickens.

Bound by budget and staffing shortages, the DNR did not meet the goals set out in the state’s 2004-14 prairie chicken plan.

Even the latest plan update job failed until recently.

But Alaina Gerrits, former assistant DNR upland ecologist and current Vilas County wildlife biologist, has done a stellar job over the past 10 months leading efforts to develop a draft plan.

It included four concrete options for managing prairie chickens, ranging from aggressive to passive, and the costs of each.

The public strongly supported the more aggressive and expensive proposal (Option 1), which would have cost $4.26 million per year and set a goal of acquiring 25,000 additional acres of grassland in central Wisconsin.

During the review process, the DNR received 365 comments from the public, including 274 in favor of Option 1.

The Prairie Chicken Committee narrowed down this vision for the final version of the plan and proposed a “hybrid” to the board.

It featured the lower cost of $1.34 million per year, focuses management more tightly on just three state properties (Beuna Vista, Leola, and Paul J. Olson Wildlife Areas), and does not include any translocation of birds.

The final plan took the best components from the four preliminary alternatives and targeted goals so that future management would be realistically achievable within ten years, Gerrits said.

The mission of the plan is to: increase the level of grassland habitat management occurring on state-managed lands on an annual basis; continue lek monitoring; increase levels of education and awareness; increasing permanent land protections through acquisitions and easements; and improve private land initiatives.

Specific goals include the removal of woody vegetation until less than 20% of the three properties are made up of trees or shrubs over 6 feet tall. Practices include mechanical mowing of brush, herbicides and others.

Prescribed burning would also be used annually at current levels on Buena Vista and Leola and increased annually at Paul J. Olson.

In addition, livestock conservation grazing would be increased on the three properties from the current level of 1,200 acres to 3,300 acres per year.

Funding for the plan, however, remains a question. The DNR could tap into the federal funds it receives each year from the Wildlife Restoration Act, but there is already a strong demand for those dollars.

Some are hoping the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will pass this summer. That would bring in about $18 million a year for Wisconsin.

The vote was 4 to 3, with board members Sharon Adams, Terry Hilgenberg, Bill Smith and Marcy West in favor and Bill Bruins, Greg Kazmierski and Fred Prehn opposing.

To read the prairie chicken management plan, visit dnr.wi.gov.

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