The future of greater prairie chickens in Wisconsin took an optimistic turn Wednesday as a new species management plan for the native bird was approved by the Natural Resources Board.
The document, produced by the Department of Natural Resources’ Greater Prairie Chicken Management Plan Team 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 land initiative.
The new plan covers 2022-32 and comes with an estimated cost of $ 1.34 million a year.
It represents what many call a last chance for the birds in Wisconsin.
“We’ve been watching them decline and decline,” said Jim Kier of Wisconsin Rapids, a retired DNR wildlife biologist and member of the advisory council. “This plan offers a solid path and would do substantially more for the birds than we’re doing now.”
As implied by their name, prairie chickens live in open, grassy areas. The species was historically found throughout Wisconsin and was most abundant in prairies and oak openings.
As recently as 1941 it was documented in all 72 counties.
But habitat losses due to increased agriculture, suburban sprawl and forest encroachment have caused large shifts in the range and abundance of prairie chickens. Today the birds exist only in isolated areas in a small portion of central Wisconsin.
In 2019, 205 male prairie chickens were counted in the state, the lowest in more than 50 years and the continuation of a long-term trend of declining numbers as well as active leks.
The prairie chicken is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in North America and was listed as a threatened state in Wisconsin in 1979.
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The problem is not exclusive to the Badger State. The species is listed as endangered in Illinois and Missouri and has already been extirpated in Canada.
The prairie chicken’s challenges are part of a troubling trend for grassland-reliant species overall.
A study titled “Decline of North American Avifauna” and published Sept. 2019 in Science estimated grassland birds showed the largest proportional decline (53%) over the last 50 years of any breeding biome.
So as its habitat continues to get turned into subdivisions or row crops or reclaimed by forests, it’s make-or-break time for prairie chickens in Wisconsin.
Strapped by budget and personnel shortages, the DNR missed goals set in the state’s 2004-14 prairie chicken plan.
Even work to update the last plan faltered until recently.
But Alaina Gerrits, the DNR’s former assistant upland ecologist and current Vilas County wildlife biologist, did a yeoman’s job over the last 10 months to lead the effort to come up with a draft plan.
It included four concrete options for prairie chicken management, ranging from aggressive to passive, and the costs of each.
The public strongly supported the most aggressive and expensive proposal (option 1), which would have cost $ 4.26 million a year and set a goal of acquiring 25,000 more acres of grasslands in central Wisconsin.
During the review process the DNR received 365 comments from the public, with 274 favoring option 1.
The prairie chicken committee scaled back that vision for the plan’s final version and offered a “hybrid” to the board.
It featured the lower cost of $ 1.34 million a year, focuses management more narrowly on just three state properties (Beuna Vista, Leola and Paul J. Olson wildlife areas) and does not include any translocations of birds.
The final plan took the best components of the four draft alternatives and focused goals for future management to be realistically achievable in a ten-year time frame, Gerrits said.
The plan’s mission is to: increase the level of grassland habitat management occurring on state-managed lands on an annual basis; continue lek monitoring; increase education and outreach levels; increase permanent lands protections via acquisitions and easements; and enhance private lands initiatives.
Specific goals include removing woody vegetation until less than 20% of the three properties are composed of trees or shrubs greater than 6 feet tall. Practices include mechanical brush mowing, herbicides and others.
Prescribed fire would also be used annually at the current levels on Buena Vista and Leola and increased at Paul J. Olson annually.
Further, conservation grazing of livestock would be increased on the three properties from the current level of 1,200 acres to 3,300 acres annually.
Funding for the plan, however, remains a question. The DNR could tap federal monies it receives each year from the Wildlife Restoration Act, but there is strong demand for those dollars already.
Some are hopeful the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will be passed this summer. It would bring about $ 18 million a year to Wisconsin.
The vote was 4-3, with board members Sharon Adams, Terry Hilgenberg, Bill Smith and Marcy West in favor and Bill Bruins, Greg Kazmierski and Fred Prehn opposed.
To read the prairie chicken management plan, visit dnr.wi.gov.