Since 1973, when the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society was founded, its members have proudly waved the habitat flag for a Minnesota species whose numbers have declined as grasslands have disappeared.
Yet today, thanks to Legacy Amendment funding, society members are doing more than raising awareness of the bird’s precarious plight. They are also aggressively improving habitat by using a small grants program managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Dozens of other conservation organizations are also using the conservation partners legacy (CPL) program to advance their habitat missions. CPL grants range from a minimum of $5,000 to a maximum of $400,000. Applicants must provide a cash or in-kind match; applications are reviewed as part of a competitive process. Since 2009, $17 million in grants have been awarded for more than 200 different projects that have benefited 54,000 acres of habitat.
“The CPL program has been a wonderful program for our organization,” said Brian Winter, society president. “It has enabled us to enhance habitat at a rate far beyond what we were able to accomplish in the past. That’s good for prairie chickens. It’s also good for local economies because small business contractors do much of the work.”
The Prairie Chicken Society has received six grants totaling more than $1 million through the CPL program. The society has used this money largely to hire local contractors to cut brush, remove trees and plant prairie seed on state and federal wildlife lands. The society’s strategy is to collaborate with other partners to create habitat similar to that of settlement time when, according to lore, prairie chickens were as common as blackbirds. Much of this work is being done in Clay, Mahnomen and Norman counties.
“As their name implies, prairie chickens are creatures of open grasslands,” Winter said. “They don’t do well on land planted to row crops or land that contains too much brush, shrubs or trees that harbor predators, especially avian predators such as hawks and owls.”
Greg Hoch, DNR prairie habitat biologist, said the Prairie Chicken Society’s use of CPL dollars is valuable because it’s a way for smaller conservation organizations to get involved in habitat conservation. “The society has fewer than 200 members yet it is doing significant work that also benefits shorebirds, waterfowl and dozens of grassland songbird species,” he said. “Moreover, since it collaborates closely with state, federal and nonprofit wildlife managers, the dollars are targeted to the highest value areas.”
During Minnesota settlement times, prairie chickens occurred in unbelievable numbers. During the spring nesting season settlers would comment that their wagon wheels were yellow from all the eggs they had rolled over. During the spring of 2013 only 1,400 male prairie chickens were counted in the core prairie chicken range. This index number, based on the number of male birds observed at booming grounds, suggests a total statewide population of 3,000 to 5,000. While comparatively few compared to the distant past, the population has been sufficient to support a limited hunting season since 2004.
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“While the old days are gone forever, the Prairie Chicken Society and others are working to improve the habitat that remains so this species will always have a home in Minnesota,” Winter said.
In addition to the Prairie Chicken Society, many other species-related organizations receive funding through the CPL program. They include Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Pheasants Forever, Woodcock Minnesota, Ruffed Grouse Society and National Wild Turkey Federation. Grants also go to counties, cities and local conservation clubs such as the Nicollet Conservation Club. Twenty-nine grants totaling about $2 million have been issued in the metro area.
The CPL program is one of many programs funded by Legacy Amendment dollars that flow into the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Thirty-three percent of the sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is distributed to the Outdoor Heritage Fund. These funds may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council was established by the Legislature to provide annual recommendations on how the Outdoor Heritage funds should be used.