WATSON -- It's getting noticeably quieter on the prairie each spring, much to the disappointment of Dave Trauba.
Since 1999, he's been part of an effort to re-introduce prairie chickens to the grasslands of the Lac qui Parle wildlife management area and protected prairie areas, including the Chippewa and Plover.
During the early morning hours of late April and early May, he makes regular stops at remote sites to listen for the whoos, cackles and occasional whoops of the prairie chickens. The sounds reveal the locations of the booming grounds where male prairie chickens perform their courtship rituals.
Year-by-year, the number of prairie chickens is continuing to drop, reports Trauba.
"In another year or two, I'm not sure if we're going to have prairie chickens here,'' said Trauba. He is the director of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Refuge with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
This last May he counted no more than 20 males in the area he covers, as compared to the chorus made by 350 to 400 males that could be heard at the peak of the re-introduction program.
The area stretches all the way into the Big Stone Wildlife refuge, and offers as much as 40,000 acres of grassland, although much of that is fragmented.
Starting in 1999, prairie chicken researcher Dr. John Toepfer and his assistants trapped prairie chickens from established, native populations in northwestern Minnesota. They caught the birds at night, and the assistants made hurried trips to Lac qui Parle to release them at daybreak.
The strategy worked, said Trauba. The birds established booming grounds and their numbers started to grow.
Pardon the expression, but the population of prairie chickens never boomed when it should have. The prairie chicken re-introduction took place at a period when favorable weather and the expansion of conservation programs provided favorable conditions.
These factors also aided a big increase in the population of pheasants.
Trauba is still analyzing the data for a report, but he believes the pheasants have much to do with the inability of prairie chickens to thrive when they should have.
Pheasants practice parasitism. They lay their eggs in the nests of prairie chickens. The prairie chickens raise the pheasants at the expense of their own reproduction.
Field work has shown that as much as 67 percent of the prairie chicken nests hold pheasant eggs, he said.
Prairie chickens and pheasants can co-exist. Trauba said that it usually occurs in areas where pheasant numbers are modest or the grasslands are much larger in size. In very large swaths of grasslands, he believes the pheasants do best on the outer edges while the prairie chickens are less susceptible to parasitism in the core area.
Unfortunately, the blocks of grasslands on the landscape here are not as large as would be desired. And, there is no doubt about the explosion in pheasant numbers that occurred shortly after the transplanting of prairie chickens ended, and the birds were left to make it on their own.
The last couple of winters have been harsh on all wildlife, prairie chickens included, and that has only added to the stress on the transplanted birds.
The population of prairie chickens has also been affected by the return of sharp-tailed grouse to the area. They breed with the prairie chickens and produce a hybrid.
The sharp-tail grouse migrated to the area on their own, most likely from the Prairie Couteau area of South Dakota. It's believed that the birds hop scotched to the Lac qui Parle area by using conservation and grassland areas as islands of habitat.
Trauba said the sharp-tail grouse numbers appear to be declining too. With expectations that many conservation lands will be turned back to production in the years ahead, the link to the sharp-tail grouse in eastern South Dakota could be lost.
Both prairie chickens and sharp-tail grouse are native to western Minnesota. The last native prairie chickens were recorded in the area in the late 1940s.