Working Lands: A Missouri Farmer Saves Prairie and Grassland Birds

Creating conditions species need to thrive in Hi Lonesome.

Tom Smiths anthem could be “Don’t Fence Me In,” except that he has a fencing company. His customers can be bizarre; one wanted a 10-foot fence to protect his garden from starving mobs fleeing Kansas City and St. Louis, which, he was convinced, would burn to the ground within two years.

But most are more ordinary landowners to whom Smith, a 63-year-old cattleman, preaches the value of native grass. Smith raises about 90 grass-fed feeder calves on 627 leased acres of Hi Lonesome Prairie, a state-owned property near his Cole Camp, Missouri, home. “When I found a neighbor was planning to plow a patch of big bluestem,” Smith says, “I told him, ‘Oh, man, don’t plow that. What you’ve got there is native prairie.’ 

“And it’s still there. ”

[video:42851|caption:VIDEO: Missouri farmer Tom Smith saves prairie and grassland birds.]

Missouri once boasted 15 million acres of native prairie, but today less than 0.5 percent remains. Hi Lonesome, a remnant of that prairie, was used by bison, elk, and huge flocks of greater prairie-chickens. The bison and elk are long gone—beef cattle are the contemporary substitute—and the prairie-chickens are barely holding on. “It has been three years since we had an active lek on Hi Lonesome,” admits Max Alleger, grassland bird coordinator for the Missouri Conservation Department. “We get reports of an occasional chicken sighting, but there aren’t many.”

Now Smith and other private landowners, working with Missouri Audubon and state agencies, are taking an ecosystem approach to preserving and restoring 31,000 acres of what’s left of the Missouri prairie, including Hi Lonesome, an Audubon Important Bird Area. The plan should help prairie-chickens, although Henslow’s sparrows, short-eared owls, and eastern meadowlarks could benefit as well. If the plan works, cattle will play a starring role.

Managed grazing—by simulating the historic grazing patterns of bison on millions of acres—knocks back enough of the tallgrass that grassland chicks can forage for insects while still having adequate cover from predators. “We’ve worked directly with landowners,” says Tony Robyn, regional director of Audubon’s Upper Mississippi Flyway Program. “We zeroed in on beef producers. How they hay or graze can impact the survival of ground-nesting birds.”

Audubon is collaborating with both Smith, by paying for tree removal on some of his prairie, and with the Conservation Department, by conducting surveys of quail and upland sandpipers on state land. “Audubon and the Department helped establish the Hi Lonesome Missouri Master Naturalist chapter,” Alleger says. “The 35 volunteers monitor everything from amphibians to birds. That’s a big benefit for our prairie management.” 

Today’s farmer is often one natural disaster from financial misery, so conservation on farmland has to make financial sense. “Farming’s not like it used to be,” says Smith, who grew up on a nearby farm, where his family lived on what they could raise and grow. “I really believe that the more people know about prairie grass the more they’ll go that way.” His cows graze on the lush native grass from April to August, gaining two pounds a day—double, he says, what they would gain on the fescue that has largely supplanted native tallgrass in the state. 

Says Justin Pepper, conservation director of Audubon’s Prairie Bird Initiative, “There’s a growing awareness of how food is produced. People want farmers to succeed, but be ecologically and socially responsible. Tom is great to work with and has the willingness to take on new ideas. He’s an example of how we need to forge true partnerships with farmers and ranchers and learn from them.”

There are other, nonfinancial rewards, too. “People miss the boat,” says Smith. “They don’t realize how many different birds are on that area. That’s a beautiful piece of property—you get up on the hill and you can see for miles in any direction.”

This story originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as, “Home On the Range.”


Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido)

Range and habitat: A permanent resident of native prairie. Now found in widely scattered populations from North Dakota and Wisconsin south to Texas.

Status: Gone from much of its former range. Overall population is thought to have declined 80 percent since the early '70s; currently probably fewer than 250,000. 

Outlook: Loss of habitat is the greatest threat. Working ranches that maintain native prairie for grazing can also serve as important habitat for prairie-chickens.—Kenn Kaufman