Replanting The Prairie To Encourage Wildlife

By Bill Graham
KIRKSVILLE, MO–Pieces sewn together make a quilt.
Steve Mowry is using that approach to rekindle hope for endangered Prairie Chickens and other grassland natives in a north Missouri neighborhood better known for corporate hog farms.

If he succeeds, Prairie Chickens, rare butterflies and other wildlife will receive a boost, and the public will get a new place to see what Missouri looked like before European settlement.

A 540-acre tract once used by Premium Standard Farms to spread hog wastes on nonnative grasses is being replanted to prairie near the Adair and Sullivan county border, west of Kirksville. Nearby sits a rare, virgin, 50-acre native-grass tract recently bought by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. It’s the nonprofit’s first land purchase in north Missouri.

Mowry, a Northland attorney who is president of the foundation, also is working with other private- and public-property owners to create a native-grassland ecosystem in a countryside where thousands of Prairie Chickens once thrived, but fewer than 20 now survive.

“The potential for wildlife is tremendous,” Mowry said. “We can connect a patchwork of habitats so Prairie Chickens and other grassland nesting birds have a shot.”

North Missouri was a prairie stronghold before the Civil War. But deep, fertile soils were easy to stick a plow into, and the land was transformed into row crops or pastures. Prairies vanished, said Max Gallagher of Clinton, a biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. So did wildflowers and the Prairie Chickens.

Modern agriculture, which converted pastures to fescue grass, has taken a toll on birds that evolved on prairies. Fescue attracts few insects for food and is hard to run through when it is tall, which is especially important for young birds to survive. The most common nonnative fescues also can be too short for wildlife cover when pastures are heavily grazed or cut for hay.

Crop fields often are bare in nesting season and winter, when birds need the shelter the taller and less-thickly bunched prairie plants provide. Fewer than 500 Prairie Chickens survive statewide, mostly in southwest Missouri. Other than a flock that migrated from Iowa into northwest Missouri, numbers keep dropping. Prairie advocates such as Frank Oberle said the birds can be brought back. He has been burning fescue and clearing brush in pastures on a farm in the neighborhood. Prairie seeds and plant seedlings have sprouted with vigor, and the fields are reverting to bluestem grasses and wildflowers.

“The wildlife is moving back in,” he said, “including rare butterflies and birds.”

Regal Fritillary Butterflies and Henslow’s Sparrow Birds are among the returnees. Mowry is aiming for the same results on the land that Premium Standard Farms owns. The Kansas City-based company formerly sprayed wastes from hog-production barns onto the land as fertilizer for grass production in livestock grazing.

Premium Standard now converts wastes into fertilizer pellets for commercial sale, said Forest Decker, the company’s superintendent of land resources. The company has granted a 10-year lease for the land to the Prairie Foundation for free, while retaining rights to spray wastes if needed, though in far lower concentrations than before, Decker said.

If successful, Mowry said the foundation would like to negotiate similar leases on Premium Standard lands to broaden the partnership. –Kansas City Star