Private landowners in Oklahoma are stepping up to preserve habitat for prairie chickens
Rebecca Jim owns a mile and a half acreage just north of Vinita, Oklahoma, at the northern edge of the Cherokee Nation. She inherited this land from her family who used to ranch cattle here. She said her land is longer than it is wide, perfect for bringing back prairie chickens. She is turning two fields on the land into prairies to bring back prairie chickens.
Prairie chickens once called her family’s land home, said Jim. These would have been greater prairie chickens, whose southern range extends into northeastern Oklahoma and are listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Every spring in the 70’s and 80’s, she said she could see them right outside her bedroom window, showing off their booming display to mate.
“They would come every year and dance right here, right here,” she said. “There weren’t so many trees then, so we could see them right outside the window and on our porches and not disturb them but enjoy.”
Jim has a lot of hope for her land, that it could one day be home to the bird again. But it’s going to take years to get the land back in good shape, she said. The first step is to get rid of invasives like eastern red cedar. According to the Oklahoma State University Extension office, prairie chickens need mixed grass prairie to thrive.
Tall trees pose multiple threats to prairie chickens. They can overshadow the native grasses which prairie chickens need for nesting, and they are perfect for predators to perch.
Other human caused disturbances, like windmills, pumpjacks, and telephone poles also pose a threat to the bird’s habitat by forcing their range into pockets of grasslands disconnected from each other, said Clay Nichols, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lesser prairie chicken coordinator. This is especially true in Oklahoma, where over 95% of the land is privately owned.
“150 years worth of habitat loss and fragmentation occurred over a long period of time, resulting in the landscape that the lesser prairie chicken lives in today and it's trying to navigate, causing a decline in viability for the species.”
Jim said she’s going to continue to get rid of the invasive large trees that are in her fields. “There'll be good firewood for people. They'll be good posts for anybody building fence,” she said.
Then, she plans to introduce fire to the land. The smaller branches from the invasive woody plants will be used to fuel the fire. Afterwards, a few cattle will graze on each field to help fertilize the ground.
“Following the burns, the cattle will eat any of the fresh invasive species that come up because they're tender. But they'll also mash in the seeds we want to be successful,” she said.
Jim said she’ll be receiving back seeds of little bluestem, rattlesnake master, and other native plants she shared with Euchee Butterfly farm in Bixby Oklahoma to plant in her fields.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, healthy grasslands are important because they have the potential to capture carbon dioxide and purify the air and water. And they are important to maintain so farmers and ranchers can continue working the land.
Prairie chickens are an indicator of the overall health of grasslands in the Southern Great Plains, Nichols said.
“The lesser prairie chicken, it's giving us clear indications that the system is struggling right now. And so I think that the importance of this is that it gives us an indicator that we have some work to do,” he said.
According to the Audubon Society, 84 percent of grasslands in the US are privately owned and 95 percent of all grassland birds live on cattle ranches.
As Congress pushes against government attempts to protect prairie chickens, some landowners are taking it upon themselves to volunteer their fields for prairie restoration.
Landowners want to participate in conservation of prairie chickens despite congress recent actions, Nichols said.
“The only reason we have the existing lesser prairie chickens that we currently have is because of the work that's being done on these private lands to conserve the species,” he said.
Over 400,000 acres of privately owned land were enrolled in voluntary conservation programs that address the needs for prairie chickens even before the bird was federally listed as endangered, he said.
StateImpact is a collaboration of NPR member stations in Oklahoma.