History of the Prairie Chicken Festival

  In 2006, Golden Sands RC&D started the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival (PC Fest) on a whim and a shoestring budget. The idea was to bring awareness to the Central Wisconsin Grasslands and its prize inhabitant – the Greater Prairie Chicken.
 
  The prairie chicken of Wisconsin is one of the most researched species of grouse in the United States. Unfortunately, like many prairie species nationwide, its numbers are declining. It is estimated that there are only 1,200 prairie chickens left in Wisconsin, down from 2,500 in 1950 and 55,000 in 1930. Residential development, conversion of pasture lands to row crops or upland cranberries and conversion of prairie to forest are just a few reasons for habitat loss. In order to preserve the species, prairie chicken hunting was banned in Wisconsin in 1955.

   The objectives for the PC Fest are to provide: 
  •     A historical perspective of the prairie chicken.
  •     Opportunities to observe the prairie chicken and other prairie species.
  •     Educational experiences for children and adults.
  •     A forum to explain federal, state and county programs that encourage conservation.
  •     Examples of easy, cost-effective changes that farmers and landowners can make to their properties, such as rotational grazing, no-till cropping, and prairie restoration.
  In 2006, first-year visitors were invited to observe prairie chickens on their booming grounds at the Buena Vista Wildlife Area. This area, totaling 12,700 acres, is home to the largest stable population of Greater Prairie Chicken remaining in the state of Wisconsin and east of the Mississippi River. We offered several blinds for reservation from which the prairie chicken's amusing mating ritual could be observed. We also offered grassland bird tours, presentations about prairie chicken management, and explained how radio telemetry is used to gather important information. Many experts gathered to participate in talks about establishing bluebird trails and understanding raptors of the grasslands, especially harriers and kestrels. Participants were treated to bagels, coffee and juice under a large tent and were introduced to literature about the prairie chicken and prairie conservation. More than 50 people attended the morning activities, and more attend the festival every year.
 
  Nearly 200 travelers stopped at the historic Hamerstrom home (1861) located just south of Buena Vista in Plainfield. There, they learned about the late researchers Fred and Francis Hamerstrom and attended the Wisconsin Literary Bash.

The Hamerstroms

   Since the 1950s, the Hamerstroms were internationally known for their scientific and literary works which saved the prairie chicken from extirpation in Wisconsin. They perfomed diligent research from 1920 to 1970 and Fran continued to work until her death in 1996. Former students of Aldo Leopold, they received their own recognition from Wisconsin’s Conservation Hall of Fame and in 1971 and won the National Wildlife Federation Award for Distinguished Service to Conservation. Fran was a two-time winner of the Wildlife Society Award.
 
  For her literary works, Fran was given awards through the Council for Wisconsin Writers, Wisconsin Regional Writers Association and published 150 scientific papers. Additionally, she published twelve books including her auto-biography, “My Double Life-Memoirs of a Naturalist,” which was even translated into foreign languages.
 
  Around the same time, Mead Wildlife Area, a 22,000 acre conservation area near Milladore, WI, also opened its doors. Activities there included grassland birding tours, wetland tours, bird banding, and a managed intensive grazing tour. Scheduled speakers gave presentations about prairie chicken management, backyard wildlife, renewable/recyclable building construction, bird banding and rotational grazing. The highlight was the dedication of the Buena Vista, Mead, Leola and Paul Olson Wildlife Areas as Important Bird Areas (IBA), a global recognition of their importance for wildlife habitat.

  Children’s activities were plentiful in 2006. Conservation and non-profit organizations set up table-top displays to provide information for visitors about grassland birds, trails, hunting and birding organizations, and federal/state/local conservation programs that encourage grassland enhancement and protection. Food was provided by the Student Chapter of the Izaak Walton League.

  In 2007, businesses and organizations from different communities asked to be partners. Financial support from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and the Dane County Conservation League allowed for regional advertising. The PC Fest was expanded to two days to include Sunday. Displays were outside in a large tent as the Wisconsin Literary Bash moved their event to the Stanton W. Mead Wildlife Education and Visitor Center. It also expanded to include the Paul J Olson and Sandhill Wildlife Areas, and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Observation blind opportunities at Buena Vista were increased to nine blinds and four at the Paul J Olson Wildlife Area. Home tours continued at the Hamerstrom home with a featured artist exhibition. A formal collaboration with Central Wisconsin Tourism Association and writers and other media personalities were invited to attend and report on the weekend. Library exhibitions were held in February and March at McMillan Library in Wisconsin Rapids, the Marshfield Public Library and the Portage County Library. More than 600 persons attended the two-day event.
 
  In an effort to increase awareness and expand our audience, we opted to add some indoor venues to the Festival.  In 2011, we added the "Grassland Gala" and in 2012, the "Boomin' Brewery Bash" made its debut as part of the Celebration of Grasslands.  New and expanded partnerships allowed us to expand the offerings of the festival to appeal to are larger audience while still making it free to the public. 

  Now in its ninth year, the PC Fest is becoming a part of Central Wisconsin tradition. Farmers and other local landowners continue to express interest in providing habitat for the prairie chicken and some are providing observation blinds to interested birders. "Green tourism" is the next economic opportunity as we transition away from industrialization. On behalf of Golden Sands RC&D we hope that you will join us for a look at the Central Wisconsin grasslands. On behalf of the prairie chicken and its fellow grassland inhabitants – thank you!