Lessons from the Heath Hen
April 3, 2017
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries
From the failed attempt to save heath hens from extinction, we laid the groundwork for cooperative conservation of other grouse species
Eighty-five years ago today, the last living heath hen was seen for the last time. Booming Ben, as the lone grouse came to be known, had been the last of his kind since 1929. He faithfully returned each spring to display alone at his traditional lekking ground, making his last appearance on March 11, 1932.
A sub-species of the greater prairie-chicken, the heath hen was a close cousin of the lesser prairie-chicken (a grouse species that lives in grasslands east of greater sage-grouse). The likeness between the two is apparent when comparing historic footage of displaying male heath hens, with contemporary footage of male lesser-prairie chickens.
Heath hens once ranged across scrubby coastal heath barrens from Maine to Virginia. Intensive hunting, coastal settlement, and fire suppression caused the population to plummet. By 1870, heath hens had vanished from the mainland US and only remained on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.
As heath hen populations further dwindled, Martha’s Vineyard officials banned hunting of heath hens in 1906. Two years later, they created a 600-acre preserve for the birds. Far too little, far too late. The tiny remaining population was highly vulnerable to disruption. Add to that a lack of understanding of prairie grouse ecology—most notably of fire’s role in maintaining viable habitat—and the heath hen’s demise was sealed.
From the failed attempt to save heath hens from extinction, we learned the importance of early intervention—not waiting until a species hangs on the brink of extinction to begin efforts to boost its numbers. We also learned the importance of scientific research in understanding the ecological forces driving population dynamics. And we learned that landscape-level habitat problems need landscape-level solutions.
Fast-forward to 2010, when the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative as well as the Sage Grouse Initiative—landscape-level efforts to maintain healthy habitat across the multi-state range of these birds as a means to increase the population of both at-risk grouse species.
Scientific research helps identify core lesser prairie-chicken habitat and connective habitat corridors so that conservation efforts can focus where they’ll have the greatest impact. Research continues to help hone conservation efforts, increasing our understanding of population dynamics and fine-tuning our strategies for improving habitat health.
Though the effort to save the heath hen was unsuccessful, it laid the groundwork for the way we undertake conservation of other species. Through LPCI, SGI, and other similar landscape conservation initiatives, private landowners can voluntarily partake in a collaborative effort to conserve not only an iconic species but an iconic way of life.
These collaborative initiatives build upon the fact that when grasslands are healthy and productive, both wildlife and ranchers are better off. That’s win-win conservation at its best.
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.