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Wisconsin's Prairie Chickens


The comeback story of the greater prairie chicken in Wisconsin was written by many people--individuals who were passionate about protecting a small piece of our natural heritage partnered with wildlife managers and researchers who could see how it might be done. Their unique partnership began as a suitable blend of all the necessary components. It stands as one of the most successful private/public collaborative efforts ever organized in the name of conservation. This joint effort continues today to support the grassland management program in central Wisconsin.
The story begins with pioneering research by the husband and wife team of WDNR wildlife biologists, Fred and Frances Hamerstrom. Their outdoor laboratory was the drained marshland in southwestern Portage county, locally referred to as Buena Vista Grassland. The Hamerstroms' work culminated in 1957 with an urgent call for habitat protection for the prairie chicken, or certain extirpation in Wisconsin would occur in a few short years. The birds had not been hunted in the state since 1955, but a loss of suitable grasslands to intensive agricultural development was continuing at a rapid rate.
The Hamerstroms' message, alone with growing interest among private conservation groups, already had prompted Wisconsin Conservation Department (forerunner of the WDNR) to issue a policy statement declaring the state's commitment to saving a dwindling prairie chicken population.
Things began rolling when one of the most active private conservation groups in the state, the Dane County Conservation League (DCCL), took notice of the prairie chicken dilemma in 1958 and recognized that protection of the habitat in central  Wisconsin was critical for survival of the species. The DCCL's Paul Olson solicited private donations to purchase land and arrangements were made to lease that land to the DNR. At last, state wildlife experts could begin a serious habitat management program.
Increased visibility of the chickens' plight led, in 1961, to formation of the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd., an organization founded solely for the purpose of protecting and preserving Wisconsin's prairie chickens. Much like the DCCL awakening, the Society grew from the experience of a group of concerned conservationists - this time from Milwaukee - who visited the booming grounds one April. There they witnessed the bird that is its own best salesman. The Society soon began a broad-based fundraising program that made possible the purchase of additional large tracts of land in the central Wisconsin area, which also were earmarked for DNR management. Today, over 15,000 acres have been acquired for prairie chicken management thanks in large part to the combined efforts of these two organizations.
Paul Olson
Recalling his impression of seeing male prairie chickens performing their booming ritual, Paul Olson said it left him "bug-eyed" and determined to go to work. That was 1958 and, as founding father of the Dane County Conservation League, Olson had worked for years with other private citizens on the conservation front. Olson saw the prairie chickens as a chance to guarantee the continued existence of a native bird on the Wisconsin Landscape. The DCCL, with Olson in the lead, generated public interest and private funds to purchase land in central Wisconsin and launch a protection program that is the envy of like-minded conservationists across the country. For more than 25 years, Olson helped weave the pieces together - the Hamerstroms' research, DNR project managers, members of the Tympanuchus Society, lawyers who worked gratis, legislators, and donors who cared. Paul Olson explained his devotion to the saving of Wisconsin's Prairie Chickens as a natural desire to leave a legacy for his children. In fact, we all inherit the results of his commitment. In his own words, "It worked!" 
Willis Sullivan
Willis Sullivan, too, can be credited with writing an important chapter in the effort to purchase and protect land for prairie chicken habitat in Wisconsin. A chance meeting with Dory Vallier, a friend and fellow conservationist who was active in early efforts to save the grassland habitat, stirred Sullivan's own interest in the plight of the precious bird. In April of 1961, Sullivan made his first visit to view a spring booming, and he was hooked. "It was like learning a long-forgotten friend was in trouble," he recalled. Sullivan moved quickly to organize a group of committed people into what became the Society of  Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd. Behind this tongue-twisting, affectionate name was a fundraising powerhouse. Sullivan and the Society spread the net wide, including individuals and institutions worldwide who were all interested in the preservation of a species that , once seen, could not be ignored. For Willis Sullivan it was "the accomplishment of my life." For the greater prairie chicken of Wisconsin, support from the society continues to provide the lifeblood necessary for survival.
Fred and Fran Hamerstrom
Prairie chicken research in Wisconsin was the heart and soul of scientific study for Fredrick and Frances Hamerstrom. For more than 40 years, they worked side-by-side, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the birds that still remained in the central part of the state. Habitat loss had pushed the greater prairie chicken from the savannas and prairie wilderness of southern Wisconsin. It was the landmark work of the Hamerstrom's that, by the mid-1950's, signaled an absolute urgency for establishing a management program in the remaining grasslands of Wisconsin, or the species would be gone from the state forever. Wisconsin's greater prairie chicken population exists today because their call for preservation was heard and heeded in time. Husband and wife studied with the great Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold in the 1930s and 1940s and worked together fervently on prairie chicken research for the DNR from 1948 to 1972. The Hamerstroms' studies and observations prompted efforts by private groups to purchase land for lease to the DNR to establish a grassland management program. The result is the heroic habitat restoration effort that has saved the greater prairie chicken and its grassland habitat in central Wisconsin.
Dory Vallier and Gordon Kummer
Dory Vallier and Gordon Kummer, a husband and wife team, were on their way to visit a property near Tomahawk, Wisconsin that they were interested in purchasing. On the way they decided to visit their friends the Hamerstroms. According to Dory, Fran was particularly persuasive in describing their plan to protect prairie chicken habitat. The plan consisted of purchasing blocks of land and restoring the habitat. The plan would create a checkerboard effect at the Buena Vista Grassland which the Hamerstroms believed would aid in the survival of the prairie chickens. At the time, land was being cleared for vegetable production and remaining habitat was quickly disappearing.
Gordon Decided to help by purchasing the first 40 acres of prairie chicken refuge. The couple quickly became committed and dedicated to the cause of saving the prairie chickens. They formed the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd. Dory continues to participate in the group's annual meeting.
©1993- University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point