State taking heat for prairie chicken flights

Springfield — A bird that has not been hunted in Illinois in more than 80 years but is an important part of the state’s wildlife history is causing a stir after it was learned DNR has been spending thousands of dollars to transport the species here from Kansas.

The greater prairie chicken,which once fluttered on 21 million acres of native prairie across Illinois was at center of an uproar by some lawmakers who scoffed at a  $520,000 program that has been paying for the birds to be moved by airplane.

DNR officials said that biologists took 16 flights during March and April to transport 91 birds to a habitat preserve at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County, which is in southeastern Illinois. According to reports, the flights this spring cost a total of about $7,400.

The project is part of a three-year program largely funded by federal grants, DNR noted. Agency spokesman Chris Young told The Associated Press that the greater prairie chicken is a state endangered species, with a dwindling population of 70 birds before the program launched.

“It’s sort of a signature bird of the tall grass prairie,” Young said.

Tom Clay, of the Illinois Audubon Society, pointed out that some 150 years or so ago, there were 14 million greater prairie chickens in Illinois.

“But last spring there were only 62 birds. From 14 million to 62, think of it,” Clay said. “And that’s hurt the grassland birds, the northern harriers, the short-eared owls, meadowlarks, bobolinks. Today you’ve got to look around to find them.”

Clay said Illinois Audubon has spent millions at Prairie Ridge to buy land and protect it. And the three-year prairie chicken program is necessary, he said, just as past programs to save the wild turkey and river otter were necessary.

Using the Postal Service to ship the greater prairie chickens wouldn’t work, he said.

“I wish it was as simple as throwing them in the back of a pickup truck with John Candy and Steve Martin, but it’s not.”

After the capture in Kansas, biologists take blood samples and try to get the breeding birds onto the Illinois breeding grounds in a day.

“We’re fighting time,” said Clay.

Clay pointed out that the federal funds used for the program can only be used for this kind of work.

“This grant money couldn’t have gone for anything else,” Clay said. “It was dedicated to wildlife preservation.”

Uproar over the program began when Republican state Rep. Bill Mitchell, of Forsyth, called the program “bizarre” and questioned its cost during a House budget debate on May 15. During that hearing, House Democrats passed a $37.3 billion budget that relies on making a temporary income tax increase permanent.

“Using Air Illinois to fly prairie chickens from Kansas… it’s too bizarre to make it up,” Mitchell said.

According to DNR, the prairie chicken project uses $337,500 in federal wildlife grants and $181,730 in state funds and private donations. The state money comes from hunting and fishing license fees.

DNR used two-engine state planes rather than trucks to transport the birds because it’s less stressful for the animals and has less employee costs. The number of birds per flight depends on how many biologists can catch during each trip to Kansas, which has a healthier prairie chicken population.

The program calls for the state to bring in a total of 300 birds in three years. State pilots have flown between Illinois and Kansas 14 times this year taking prairie chickens to the Illinois preserves

“Illinois is the Prairie State and prairie chickens are an endangered species here, so we thought it would be a good idea to bring them back,” said Scott Simpson, site manager for Prairie Ridge State Natural Area.

Missouri is also getting threatened birds from Kansas, but they’re driving the birds, not flying them, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation said.

Prairie Ridge is unique in that, while DNR manages the entire 3,500 acres, nearly 200 acres remains under ownership of the Illinois Audubon Society and has been developed as grassland/wetland habitat and an environmental education area. About 200 acres owned by AmerenCIPS adjacent to nearby Newton Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area have been placed under DNR.

Facts about the prairie chickens’ history in Illinois:

  • The greater prairie chicken, a grouse native to Illinois, was listed as common to abundant prior to European settlement.
  • Prairie-chickens occurred on the 21 million acres of native prairie that existed in Illinois; about 60 percent of the state’s total area.
  • Peak prairie chicken numbers of 10-14 million birds probably occurred from about 1850-60 at the time when there was a patchwork of prairies interspersed with grain fields, creating optimum habitat for prairie-chickens.
  • By 1900, only about 1 million acres of the original prairie and marsh remained in Illinois. Prairie chickens still existed in 92 counties by 1912.
  • The prairie chicken hunting season was permanently closed in 1933 when there was an estimated statewide population of 25,000 birds.
  • By 1940, the range of the prairie chicken was limited to 50 square miles of sand prairie along the Green River in Lee County, about 2,600 square miles of “gray prairie” in southeastern Illinois, and a few poorly drained areas of the Kankakee drainage.
  • In response to the drastic decline of the prairie chickens due to the loss of grasslands, the Prairie Chicken Foundation of Illinois was organized in 1959 with the single purpose of preserving the prairie-chicken in Illinois.
  • In 1961 the first sanctuary of 77 acres was acquired in Jasper County.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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