Chicken restoration shows promise

Field Editor

Watson, Minn. A small cadre of hunters will step into Minnesota
bird hunting history beginning Saturday, when the season opens for
the state’s first prairie chicken hunt since 1942. Limited to 100
hunters selected by lottery, the hunt will be held in several zones
in an area stretching from Fergus Falls north to Crookston.

Once Minnesota’s most common game bird, prairie chicken numbers
dwindled during the 20th Century as grasslands were plowed and
wetlands drained to accommodate agriculture. A remnant population
remained along the beach ridge of Glacial Lake Agassiz, which
contains sufficient grasslands to support the birds. In recent
years, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollments, as well as
stepped-up prairie management by government agencies and private
conservation groups, has improved grassland habitat for prairie
chickens. The hunting season poses no threat to the population,
officials say.

“The birds are well established in that area,” says Lloyd
Knudson, DNR farmland wildlife coordinator. “We feel comfortable
having the season.”

Wildlife habitat managers hope that holding a hunting season
will ultimately benefit prairie chickens by creating new interest
in the birds and directing attention to their habitat needs. In
parts of western Minnesota, grasslands and potential prairie
chicken habitat are expanding due to CRP, conservation easements,
and wildlife acquisitions. In the foreseeable future, prairie
chickens could return to places where they haven’t been seen in
many years.

A restoration effort begun at Lac qui Parle five years ago shows
promise. This year, wildlife biologists found nine leks the
so-called “booming grounds” where prairie chickens gather to
perform mating rituals in Big Stone and Traverse counties.
Following birds with radio transmitters, biologists found 22 nests
this spring and observed 50-percent nest success.

Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management
Area, says a new method was used to stock the birds, which were
captured from wild flocks in northwestern Minnesota. Prairie
chickens are highly mobile. Though they’re captured most easily
during the spring breeding season, birds translocated at that time
of year scatter from the release site.

For this project, birds were captured in the spring, affixed
with radio transmitters, and released. Biologists then returned in
the summer molt to radio-track and recapture the birds, which were
then relocated to the restoration area. Summer-stocked birds have
remained in the release area.

Due to their natural wanderlust, prairie chickens have moved
from one release site to another, and even into other blocks of
habitat, sometimes travelling 20 miles or more. Biologists are
using radio telemetry to track their movements. They found prairie
chickens not only find distant habitat, but also locate other
birds. This means it may be possible to connect new and remnant
populations across the broader landscape of western Minnesota,
northeastern South Dakota, and southeastern North Dakota.

While the vision of a broader prairie chicken range is
realistic, achieving such a goal is challenging. Unlike wild
turkeys, which often take hold when a few birds are stocked in
suitable habitat, prairie chickens require a long-term commitment
by wildlife managers to monitor the population and, more
importantly, to periodically burn or otherwise rejuvenate the
grasslands.

Still, Trauba is optimistic that prairie chickens may make
connections between good habitat areas on their own. Radio-tracked
birds in the restoration program have established a booming ground
just 24 miles from an existing booming ground in Grant County. The
birds already have demonstrated they will travel that far to find
new habitat.

“Every year this goes on, I’m more encouraged,” Trauba says of
the restoration effort. Already, he enjoys seeing prairie chickens
near Lac qui Parle. Last Sunday, at sunset, he watched a prairie
chicken fly across the Chippewa prairie.

“I thought to myself, It doesn’t get better than this,’ ” he
says.

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