The future of larger prairie chickens in Wisconsin took an optimistic turn on Wednesday when the Natural Resources Council approved a new species management plan for native birds.
The document, prepared by the Greater Prairie Department of Natural Resources’s chicken care plan team with input from a stakeholder advisory board and the general public, calls for increased investment in habitat management and land acquisition, as well as revitalization of private land.
The new plan covers the years 2022-32 and comes at an estimated cost of $ 1.34 million per year.
It represents what many call the last chance for birds in Wisconsin.
“We’ve been watching their decline and decline,” said Jim Kier of Wisconsin Rapids, a former DNR wildlife biologist and member of the advisory board. “This plan offers a solid path and would do significantly more for the birds than we do now.”
As their name suggests, prairie chickens live in open grassy areas. This species has historically been found throughout Wisconsin and was most abundant in prairies and oak holes.
Back in 1941, it was documented in all 72 districts.
But habitat losses due to increased agriculture, suburban sprawl, and forest encroachment have caused large shifts in the extent and abundance of prairie chickens. Today, birds exist only in isolated areas in a small part of central Wisconsin.
In 2019, 205 male prairie chickens were counted in the state, at least for more than 50 years, and the long-term trend of declining numbers and active drugs continues.
The prairie chicken is listed as the species with the greatest need for protection in North America and in 1979 it was listed in Wisconsin as an endangered state.
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The problem does not concern the state of Badger alone. This species is listed as endangered in Illinois and Missouri and has already been extinct in Canada.
The challenges of prairie chickens are part of a worrying trend for pasture-dependent species.
A study called “The Decline of the North American Avifauna” and published in the journal Science in September 2019 estimates that pasture birds have shown the largest proportional decline (53%) in the last 50 years of any nesting biome.
So as its habitat continues to change into subsections or row crops or is reclaimed by forests, it’s time for the prairie chickens in Wisconsin to say goodbye.
The DNR, bound by a lack of budget and staff, did not meet the targets set in the state plan for prairie chickens for 2004-14.
Until recently, work on updating the latest plan also faltered.
But Alaina Gerrits, a former assistant to DNR’s mountain ecologist and current Vilas County wildlife biologist, has done rural work over the past 10 months to lead efforts to develop a draft plan.
It included four specific options for managing prairie chickens, from aggressive to passive, and the cost of each.
The public strongly supported the most aggressive and expensive proposal (Option 1), which would cost $ 4.26 million a year and set the goal of acquiring another 25,000 acres of pasture in central Wisconsin.
During the review process, DNR received 365 comments from the public, with 274 in favor of Option 1.
The Prairie Chickens Committee reduced this vision for the final version of the plan and offered a “hybrid” to the board.
It featured lower costs of $ 1.34 million per year, focuses more narrowly on the management of only three state properties (Beuna Vista, Leola and Paul J. Olson Wildlife Areas) and does not include any bird movements.
The final plan took the best parts of the four alternative proposals and focused the goals for future management so that they were realistically achievable within a time horizon of ten years, said Gerrits.
The mission of the plan is to: annually increase the level of grassland management on state-managed land; continue to monitor drugs; increase the level of education and outreach; increase the permanent protection of land through acquisitions and easements; and strengthen private land initiatives.
Specific objectives include the removal of woody vegetation until less than 20% of the three properties are composed of trees or shrubs taller than 6 feet. Practices include mechanical mowing with bushes, herbicides and more.
The prescribed fire would also be used annually at current levels at Buena Vista and Leola and increased annually by Paul J. Olson.
In addition, conservation cattle grazing on these three plots would increase from the current level of 1,200 acres to 3,300 acres per year.
However, the financing of the plan remains an issue. The DNR could draw on the federal money it receives each year from the Wildlife Restoration Act, but there is already strong demand for these dollars.
Some hope the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will be passed this summer. It would bring Wisconsin about $ 18 million a year.
The vote was 4-3, board members Sharon Adams, Terry Hilgenberg, Bill Smith and Marcy West were in favor and Bill Bruins, Greg Kazmierski and Fred Prehn were against.
To read a prairie chicken management plan, visit dnr.wi.gov.