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18 Save the Last Dance In 1850 S. W. Woodhouse, a naturalist-physician assigned to a government survey crew, took extensive notes on the nature and wildlife of what was then Indian Territory. Woodhouse and his crew passed near the modern town of Tulsa on their journey, then rode west along the southern edge of the Flint Hills. Woodhouse noted that he saw “immense flocks” of upland sandpipers picking over burned patches of prairie as they searched for parched grasshoppers, birds grown exceedingly fat from all the wild bounty. His journals contain passages about great numbers of wild pigeons that nearly broke down trees with their weight and the numerous greater prairie-chickens he saw across the state, especially along the Arkansas River in autumn. In his journals, published as A Naturalist in Indian Territory, Woodhouse wrote of large flocks of prairie-chickens, one flock with seventytwo birds, others with more, seen in trees along the Arkansas River in November. Woodhouse said the birds were perched in oak groves, feasting on acorns. As recently as the 1980s, encounters with prairiechicken flocks seeking oak groves for an acorn feast were still fairly common in the countryside where I grew up. Watching prairie-chickens and being concerned for their welfare 19 Save the Last Dance have been an important part of my personal history. I hunted them as a kid, then worked on prairie-chicken conservation through jobs with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Oklahoma Wildlife Federation. I was in the field during the 1970s when prairie-chicken numbers in Oklahoma’s Osage County were still high enough to warrant a popular hunting season. Numbers remained stable until the early 1990s, when the population began to crash in the Oklahoma portion of greater prairie-chicken range. Hunting here was discontinued in 1997. In its heyday the Oklahoma chicken season, held around the time of the first frost in late October or early November, drew thousands of hunters to small towns like Nowata west to Fairfax and Shidler in the Osage Hills. Cafés opened at four in the morning to accommodate incoming hunters from across the state, and the state wildlife department planted milo fields amid the big prairies to draw the birds within range of the gunners. The hunts were more like a festival or a party than any sort of serious outdoor pursuit. At daybreak it appeared that a gunner could be found crouched at the base of every milo plant in every forty-acre field. The prairie-chickens were extremely fond of this domestic grain species, and the flocks came into the fields like kamikazes, undeterred by the bristling shotguns beneath them. The result was an orgy of exploding shotgun shells and an avian bloodbath. I can remember big flocks of prairie-chickens flying from the high prairies around Pawhuska south to oak woods bordering the Arkansas River, much as Woodhouse described in 1850. Once in the early 1990s, following a snowstorm in late November, my father and I drove out to a patch of blackjack and post oak timber on a hill overlooking the headwaters of Hominy Creek southwest of Pawhuska. The snow, several feet deep, covered any grass and wildflower seeds. Hundreds of prairie-chickens had taken to the trees, perching on oak limbs, dining on any acorns that hadn’t fallen. The sky swirled with prairie-chickens flying from one tree to another, and in typical prairie-chicken fashion the birds mostly ignored us as they went about the business of stocking up on calories. The chickens picked acorns as if they were picking ripe grapes off a vine, and it was fascinating to watch acorns roll down the birds’ throats as they swallowed. That was the last large gathering of greater prairie-chickens I would see in Oklahoma’s portion of the Flint Hills. Within a few years, the 20 Save the Last Dance countryside around this particular oak grove was totally devoid of chickens, even though it remained excellent native grassland and was well managed as far as cattle grazing was concerned. Biologists with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation are still speculating about the demise of greater prairie-chickens in the southern part of their range. Over the years they’ve mentioned disease,habitat fragmentation,woody plant encroachment,too much prescribed burning, too little prescribed burning, an increased amount of nest predation, climate change, or a mixture of some or all of the above. And while the speculation continues, a...


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