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ST. LOUIS - Farmland owners can give prairie chickens a boost while earning income in an unsettling economy.

A new state-federal program will pay farmland owners in 11 Missouri counties to set aside land as habitat and nesting grounds for prairie chickens, which once roamed the state's prairies in the hundreds of thousands.

Iowa, New Mexico, and Texas are among the states making similar offers to their farmers to reverse the decline in prairie chicken habitat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

With fewer than 400 to 500 birds remaining in Missouri, their existence is tenuous.

"They're part of our prairie heritage," said Max Alleger, the state's prairie chicken recovery leader with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "They represent the native prairie that once covered a third of Missouri."

Prairie chickens, historic residents of Missouri grasslands, are being managed for expansion in parts of the state. But their need for safe nesting sites and room to roam led to a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Missouri Department of Conservation to create new habitat from cropland.

A long-standing USDA program that pays farmers not to plant crops on lands that are highly erodible or that could serve as a buffer for streams or as wildlife habitat now includes prairie chicken restoration efforts as a goal in Missouri and elsewhere.

The government payments over a 15-year contract would come just as farmers struggle to get operating loans for next spring's planting, said Joe Horner, a University of Missouri Extension economist.

"With all the banks tightening up on credit, this is an opportunity for some people to rent some of their worst (land) in exchange for a nice solid income," Horner said.

The program is limited to specific areas in 11 Missouri counties where prairie chickens are being encouraged.

Farmland owners must pledge a minimum of 20 well-drained, upland acres that provide an open landscape. Some help may be available to remove trees more than 10 feet tall. Payments are calculated on a Farm Service Agency formula.

The habitat also would benefit bobwhite quail and such migratory birds as the grasshopper sparrow, Henslow sparrow, and upland sandpiper.

Prairie chickens are solitary birds except when they come together to socialize and mate on "booming grounds" in March and April.

A bred female then seeks out a nest and hatches a clutch in the third week of June.

The mating grounds take their name from the low, mournful booming sound that courting males emit from sacks on their neck that force out air.

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