Prairie Dancers on an Ancient Seashore

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Pheasants Forever focuses on special prairie chicken tract for Minnesota Give to the Max Day 2019

By Tom Carpenter
 
Ring-necked pheasants haven’t always been Minnesota upland hunters’ prairie bird of choice. Before ringnecks came onto the scene, native prairie chickens filled sport hunters’ game vests, as well as well as farm kitchen larders, across almost the whole of the state. 
 
But prairie chickens weren’t always “everywhere.” Before settlement, the birds only occupied a small sliver of Minnesota’s southeastern corner. 
 
What happened? 
 
As the plow and fire swathed into native grasslands and small grains were planted, the axe chopped down virgin forests, and cows grazed thick native tallgrass prairie down, prairie chicken populations advanced and exploded in the new-and-ideal mix of habitat. 
 
“In 1925, Minnesota hunters harvested 421,000 prairie chickens,” wrote Greg Hoch in his excellent article The Bird that Followed the Plow (Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, September/October 2011). Who knows how many prairie chickens that settlers and pioneer farmers shot before any kind of records were kept? But by 1942, the season was closed. 
 
What happened? 
 
Too much grass was lost, tipping the habitat balance, and resurgent brush started converting to second growth timber. The prairie chicken receded – not to its ancestral range, but to a very special and relatively narrow corridor of habitat running north to south close to the state’s northwest border. It’s the eastern beach of Glacial Lake Aggasiz, a sea better known now as the Red River Valley. 
 
Here, in the hard-to-farm gravel and sand that was once a seashore, grasslands persisted, cows still grazed, and prairie chickens hung on. Organizations such as Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society and other key partners are working hard to preserve habitat that, in the end, supports songbirds, pollinators and all other manners of grassland wildlife (including in many cases ring-necked pheasants) … more than just Tympanachus cupido, the prairie chicken. 
 
Now we have a chance to preserve another tract of this special part of our state, and it’s what Pheasants Forever is celebrating for Minnesota Give to the Max Day 2019. 
 

CUPIDO WMA ADDITION

“It’s been about 17 years in the making,” says John Voz, Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Easement and Working Lands specialist for the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, a key partner in the proposed acquisition. “Now we’ve finally got the opportunity, and a willing seller. The 960-acre WMA Addition in Norman County will bring the total Cupido WMA to 1,400 acres.” 
 
GiveMax-Scenic.jpgCupido comes from the Latin name (above) for the greater prairie chicken, which already graces parts of this property as well as the adjoining 1,235-acre Twin Valley WMA and 1,834-acre Neal WMA. Prairie chickens need space, and this is some prime real estate to help them.  
 
“We’re protecting one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet,” says Voz. “Almost half of the 960-acre addition is native prairie that has never been broken by the plow. It’s right on the glacial ridge, or beach. You can see all the way to Fargo-Moorhead.”  
 
The rest of the acreage consists of hay land, pasture (which will be prime for helping back to native prairie) and some crop ground that will be converted back to grassland. “We plan to do some conservation grazing, when the time is right, for long-term grassland management,” says Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator for Pheasants Forever. There is also a restorable wetland of about 60 acres.  
 
“All the partners in this acquisition, led by Pheasants Forever, have a common bond and goal,” says Voz: “Grass side up.”  

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Sandquist agrees. “Prairie chickens are hanging on, but they have it tough. If we don’t conserve prize prairie remnants like this we won’t have prairie chickens anymore.”  
 
Do you want more projects like the Cupido WMA Addition in Minnesota, to help pheasants, prairie chickens, songbirds, raptors, butterflies, bees and all other manners of prairie and grassland wildlife? 
 
Every dollar makes a difference. Plus, Pheasants Forever has generous donor who will match up to $5,000 for Give to the Max Day and the rest of November, so we can turn it to $10,000 “just like that.”  
 
That will conserve a lot of habitat for hunters and bird dogs and hikers and wildlife watchers and wildlife – including prairie chickens performing their spring mating dance on an ancient seashore – forever.  
 
Photo credits: Prairie chicken, istock. Scenic and monarchs, John Doll, Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.