I admire the work done by The Nature Conservancy. Its purpose is to preserve valuable land and wildlife. It has done this in many instances and all over the world.
Montana has benefited considerably by the conservancy's work. It recently acquired ownership of 165,000 acres of mountain country previously owned by Plum Creek Logging that was given to it by early railroad companies. This will be public land open to all people. Another ranch open to the public is near the Rocky Mountain Front. The conservancy has also been responsible for placing almost all of our Centennial Valley and parts of the Big Hole Valley into conservation easements.
In a recent conservancy publication, I learned of two of its properties in the Mid-West. One is on the Big Bend arm of the Platte River in Nebraska. Another, the Dunn Ranch, is near the small town of Eagleville, Missouri.
The attraction at the Platte River is when up to 500,000 cranes migrate for a month in early spring to their nesting grounds in Canada. The far majorities are Sandhill Cranes but there are a few smaller species called Brown Cranes.
The flights going and coming from the river to stubble corn fields are amazing. They leave the river shortly after sunrise and return about an hour before sunset. When primatologist Jane Goodall visited this portion of the river, she called it “one of the seven wonders of the natural world.”
Those of us in Montana that have seen sandhill cranes know they are a large bird. They stand about 4.5 feet tall and have a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Living in the wild, they may age to 20 years.
The Dunn Ranch is a 4,000-acre piece of tall grass prairie that has been improved and is being maintained in its natural state as it was hundreds of years ago. In the 1700s, Missouri was “way out west” and two of the prominent species were bison and prairie chickens. Today, 300 to 400 bison are being maintained, and the grouse are being nurtured to a large enough population to transport to other locations. My father lived in North Dakota as a young man at the turn of the last century and often told me how abundant prairie chickens were there. At that time, there were also large numbers in South Dakota and Eastern Montana. The subsequent development of corn and grain crops took over the prairie habitat resulting in the loss of all, but a few birds existing today.
To have proper habitat for the birds, the buffalo are a natural contributor by grazing and tromping the grasses for natural seeding.
For about a month around March, the chickens are mating. The males gather on a small piece of land that has been used for years called a lek. This is almost identical to what we see here in our state with sage and sharptail grouse. We also have blue, ruffed and Franklin grouse, but they are a variant in that they don’t use a lek. It seems to me that those whose habitat is prairie type choose a lek and the mountain types do not. The prairie chickens are quite similar to the others, but in my opinion, and arguably, are the most colorful of all.
This is what I came to see.
— Vince Fischer of Butte is a wildlife photographer, retired banker and avid outdoorsman.