A Home to Roam
Given grasslands, a healthy population of prairie chickens could boom again.
By Greg Breining
When Dave Trauba hears a prairie chicken boom on its courting ground or flushes a bird from a patch of grass, he is enjoying a scene not witnessed in southwestern Minnesota for half a century. The big native grouse, known for the males' booming display calls, has returned to its old haunts, adding another piece to the prairie puzzle that is painstakingly being assembled in the upper Minnesota River valley.
Not that the bird hasn't had help. For the past several years, Trauba, manager of Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and a board member of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, has played a key role in restoring prairie habitat in the area and relocating birds from northwestern Minnesota. To his way of thinking, grassland restoration and prairie chicken reintroductions fit hand in glove. "Prairie chickens are a good bird to build excitement for grassland," he said.
The efforts appear to be paying off. During the past three years, 126 were released. Last spring Trauba discovered seven prairie chicken nests. In all, Trauba estimated, about 40 birds survived by late summer. That is a small number, but it is 40 more than lived in the area just a few years ago.
It wasn't always so. The greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) once lived across the grassy belly of North America, from the Midwest to the eastern Great Plains, from Canada's prairie provinces to Oklahoma. During the initial phase of settlement and plowing of the prairies, the prairie chicken population apparently exploded in response to the planting of small grains, frequent grasshopper infestations, and farmers' unrelenting extermination of hawks, foxes, and other predators. But as virtually all the native grasses were plowed and planted to crops, chicken populations collapsed. In southern Minnesota, they disappeared by the mid-1940s. "The chickens reached a certain threshold where they couldn't hold out anymore," Trauba said.
In recent years, however, southwestern Minnesota has changed, not drastically, but enough that Trauba and other proponents of the prairie chicken thought the bird might again find a home here. The Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy (which have helped the relocation project) have restored or are restoring much of their acreage to native grasslands. The Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Program, established in 1998 with authorization to buy land and conservation easements, has the potential to permanently protect native prairie still remaining in the area. The federal Conservation Reserve Program has induced farmers to plant thousands of acres of grass in the 11 townships surrounding Lac qui Parle WMA. The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, working with the DNR with a grant from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, hired grouse researcher John Toepfer to relocate prairie chickens to the Minnesota River valley.
In northwestern Minnesota, where a population of prairie chickens held on, Toepfer captured birds on their booming grounds, fitted them with radio transmitters, and released them. After they bred, he tracked some of the birds with a radio receiver and recaptured them at night with a headlight and landing net. From 1999 to early 2001, he captured and relocated 126 prairie chickens to six release sites on or near Lac qui Parle WMA. The radio tags were left in place to monitor the birds' movements and survival.
Not all has gone as planned. The relocated chickens abandoned three release sites that had been selected for them, favoring two areas used by earlier transplants. Wet weather last spring probably killed many chicks, Trauba said. "They don't have gills," he quipped.
Trauba and others worry that ring-necked pheasants?introduced from Asia about a century ago?will "dump nest" into prairie chicken nests. In Illinois, a remnant prairie chicken population was hampered when prairie chicken hens left their nests with newly hatched pheasants in tow, abandoning their own yet-unhatched eggs. Trauba found eight pheasant eggs in one Lac qui Parle nest. But the mother managed to hatch both chickens and pheasants.
Will the offspring suffer an identity crisis, unsure whether they are chickens or pheasants? Will competition from pheasants hamper the reintroduction? No one knows, Trauba says. But he says, "We're realists here. If these prairie chickens are going to hold on here, they're going to have to coexist with pheasants."
Clearly, raptors such as the ubiquitous red-tailed hawks and great horned owls pose the greatest danger to prairie chickens. "That's a tree issue," Trauba said. The landscape is open enough for hawks and owls to scour the ground with their sharp eyes, yet the scattered phone poles and trees provide ideal perches from which to launch their attacks on ground-nesting birds. "We've got a landscape that's built for avian predators," Trauba said. The solution? Trauba and other wildlife managers in western Minnesota are removing the perches, restoring the nearly treeless landscape that existed when settlers first arrived.
It's too early to tell how the relocated prairie chickens are faring, Trauba said. This coming spring will be a test of whether the birds establish new booming grounds and increase both their range and numbers. If they survive or increase, wildlife managers will probably introduce more birds from northwestern Minnesota to provide "the final kick in the pants," Trauba said. He said he's prepared to try again and again. Reintroduction of prairie chickens takes a "long-term perspective and commitment."
To be truly successful, managers will need to restore grasslands in large swaths across the landscape, joining Minnesota populations to existing prairie chicken populations in the Dakotas. "If we're going to have prairie chickens in Minnesota 100 years from now, we need to get these populations connected," Trauba said.
The work is worth it. The prairie chicken is exciting for its spectacular courtship dance and popularity with hunters. Indeed, the simple existence of the bird is a measure of success in bringing back portions of the prairie that once covered southern and western Minnesota.
"I like seeing prairie grouse on the landscape," Trauba said. "I would argue that how goes the prairie chicken, so go our other grassland species."
To build support for prairie protection and restoration, the DNR is considering the state's first prairie chicken hunt since 1942. The DNR will continue to discuss the plan internally before submitting a proposal for the Legislature to debate during the upcoming session. If approved, the state's next prairie chicken season would probably open in fall 2003.
Prairie chickens once lived throughout the prairies of western and southern Minnesota, conspicuous on their spring booming grounds and popular with the state's hunters. In 1923 hunters killed an estimated 300,000. During the state's last season in 1942, about 58,000 were killed. But by then, the bird was on a downward slide, as its habitats of native grasses and small, diverse farm fields were converted to larger and larger acreages of row crops.
Prairie protection programs and federal grassland projects such as the Conservation Reserve Program have helped chicken numbers to stabilize and even grow a bit. Nonetheless, only about 3,000 live in Minnesota, primarily between Crookston and Fergus Falls. Hunting would not be allowed in southwestern Minnesota, where prairie chickens have recently been reintroduced.
Why hunt a bird that exists in such limited numbers? "The primary reason is we're trying to create interest in prairie chickens," said Lloyd Knudson, DNR farmland wildlife coordinator. "By creating interest in prairie chickens, we hope to create interest in prairies and prairie conservation. The birds biologically can support this type of season."
The number of hunters would be strictly controlled by a lottery. Though the prairie chicken is listed as a game bird, and the DNR has authority to open a season, the DNR needs permission from the Legislature to establish a lottery to pick hunters.
According to the DNR's current plan, the harvest would be limited to no more than 5 percent of the total population in the zone where hunting would be allowed. Based on last year's population, as an example, 95 hunters would have been chosen, with two birds allowed per hunter. "We're being very conservative in the proposal," Knudson said.
Greg Breining is managing editor of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.