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Friday, April 25, 2008

Kansas a longtime haven for chickens

Michael PEARCE
The Wichita Eagle


Kansas has long been a stronghold for two of four original species of American prairie chickens.

Greater prairie chickens:
For most of the 20th century it was said the Flint Hills held more of these than all states combined. Loss of habitat has greatly reduced the Flint Hills population but numbers have grown substantially in the Smoky Hills of north-central Kansas over the past 30 years.

Lesser prairie chickens:
The Dust Bowl drought almost forced these birds into extinction across a range that includes Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.
They recovered, but began to decline again in the 1980s, when huge amounts of sand-sage prairie were put into agricultural crops, heavily Above:booming cocks. grazed or tainted by signs of civilization.

Groups petitioned in some states to have them added to the threatened or endangered species lists. That did not happen.

Only in Kansas are the birds holding their own or improving their range and numbers. Right: booming cocks, mating season.

The CRP, a federal program that pays farmers for long-term plantings of prairie grasses where crops were once raised, is credited for an expansion of the Kansas population from southwest into west-central and northwest Kansas. That could change, parks officials say, if changes in federal policy result in a loss of CRP land.

Heath hens:
The pilgrims probably ate more of these than wild turkeys at their first Thanksgiving.
The birds were abundant in grasslands from New Hampshire to Virginia until loss of habitat and over-hunting eliminated them from the mainland by 1870.

They thrived on Martha's Vineyard into the 1920s, when inbreeding, disease and a fire during breeding season took their toll. "Booming Bob," the last of the species, danced his last dance on a breeding ground in 1932.

Attwater's prairie chickens:
These birds numbered around 1 million about a century ago on the coastal prairies of Louisiana and Texas. But lost habitat took a toll. They were one of the first species placed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1960s. Their numbers plummeted to less than 50 in the 1990s.

Texas and federal biologists and conservation groups are working to re-establish habitat and populations on private and public ground. The population now is approaching 300.

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