Osage County is last bastion

Robert Smith

The maintenance of a reasonably encouraging habitat for Greater Prairie Chickens in Osage County is essential to the bird’s future in Oklahoma, according to an expert on the subject.

“Osage County is the last bastion,” Dr. Dwayne Elmore, a professor of Wildlife Biology at Oklahoma State University, said. He explained Osage County is where Oklahoma has a large enough population of the birds left for there to be much hope over the long term.

“They’re not doing great, but they’re hanging on,” Elmore said. Greater Prairie Chicken populations can be found in other mid-continent states, for example Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, but in Oklahoma they have become increasingly rare. Habitat is the issue, and there are things that landowners can do to make it more likely the birds will survive here.

The first thing landowners can do to encourage Greater Prairie Chicken populations is to determine where the areas are that the male chickens use as “booming” grounds or “leks.” These are the areas where the males gather to display themselves to the females for assessment of their fitness as mates. Within one to two miles of the “lek” is where the females are the most likely to nest, and they will need grassy areas to shield their nests from the view of predators.

“That area is the most important,” Elmore said. “Try not to burn everything within that two-mile radius of those leks.”

He recommends trying to leave perhaps 20 to 50 percent of the buffer area around the “leks” unburned when landowners use fire to clear their property. Elmore is not saying don’t use fire — fire is fundamental to the prairie — he’s advocating the use of it in a way that helps to promote native species.

“If you do that, your nest success will go up dramatically,” Elmore said.

A second issue he identified is keeping trees off the land. Where the concentration of trees increases, that ruins the habitat for Greater Prairie Chickens, he said. Elmore credited ranches in Osage County with already doing a very successful job of tree control.

“Those ranches up there do a great job of keeping the trees off,” he said.

A third issue Elmore identified is extensive herbicide use to control invasive species such as Sericea Lespedeza, which can be problematic for ranchers raising cattle. Where herbicide use is so widespread it kills off flowering plants that are native to the prairie, that in turn is detrimental for prairie chickens.

Elmore credited the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve with pursuing a better approach to eliminating Sericea Lespedeza. The Nature Conservancy has used a different herbicide, he said.

Ron Reed, an Osage County rancher who has taken an interest in the Greater Prairie Chicken, said his family’s operation has started collecting prairie chicken data.

“We count leks in the middle of April each year and see our numbers going up,” Reed said. He recalls the Greater Prairie Chicken populations in Osage County were considerably larger in the 1960s, but have dwindled since then.

Reed sees the effort to keep Greater Prairie Chicken populations in Osage County as a project that will require numerous participants.

“We’re all in this together,” Reed said. “The prairie chickens are native to this area, and we’ve got to protect them or they will be gone.”

Reed also credited the Bass Brothers ranching operation with taking an active interest in the future of the Greater Prairie Chicken.

“They’ve really gone after the prairie chicken deal,” Reed said. “They’ve really done some good things.”

Bob Hamilton, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, said the Conservancy views efforts to protect and enlarge the population of Greater Prairie Chickens in Oklahoma in terms of a wider vision of promoting the diversity of species.

“Different species need different type habitats,” Hamilton said. “Everybody needs their niche.”

He also explained that the Greater Prairie Chicken is an excellent example of a species that benefits from different types of landscape elements — short grass at “leks” so female priarie chickens can clearly see the males strut their stuff, but longer grass in the buffer areas around the “leks” for nesting purposes.

Hamilton takes the view that ranching and prairie chicken conservation are ultimately compatible.

“I think it’s one of those things, you can have it all with a little thought,” he said.