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Prairie chickens are back, on their own at Lac qui Parle WMA

WATSON -- Some of Minnesota's most celebrated wildlife restoration stories have been scripted in recent years with the return of trumpeter swans, osprey and peregrine falcons to parts of the state.

WATSON -- Some of Minnesota's most celebrated wildlife restoration stories have been scripted in recent years with the return of trumpeter swans, osprey and peregrine falcons to parts of the state.

A wildlife restoration story every bit as exciting could be in the making at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and Chippewa Prairie on the Upper Minnesota River. They represent a 2,000-acres-plus island of restored and preserved, native prairie in the heart of western Minnesota's farm country.

There, an eight-year project has been underway to return the greater prairie chicken to its former range.

Now, it's all up to the birds.

The release of 43 captured prairie chickens in the Lac qui Parle refuge area this last spring marked the final re-introduction of birds to the area. A total of 574 prairie chickens have been released in the area since the project started in 1999, according to Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle WMA with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources division of fish and wildlife.

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"I'm optimistic,'' said Trauba. He will now be watching to see if the birds can maintain a self-sustaining population. The release of birds in recent years was done only to supplement the original, colonizing population.

The transplanted birds were captured by Dr. John E. Toepfer and his helpers. They were taken from the state's last surviving, native population of prairie chickens on the glacial ridge lands of northwestern Minnesota.

During the first years, Toepfer and his helpers captured the birds twice. They nabbed them on their booming grounds in early spring and attached radio collars to them. Toepfer and his assistants returned to the grounds on mosquito infested nights in June and July.

Wearing single beam headlamps, they carried a large antenna to home in on the signals of the radio collars. They pounced on the birds with landing nets, capturing them one-by-one.

The all-night escapades ended with a red-eye drive to the Lac qui Parle refuge, where the birds were released. Their release in the summer was deliberate, said Trauba. The birds are in their primary molt and physically exhausted from the demands of the nesting season. That makes them more apt to stay put, and establish the all-important booming grounds.

This spring, Trauba and his staff counted 11 different booming grounds in an area that includes the Lac qui Parle WMA and extends to wildlife lands in Big Stone County and portions of eastern Stevens and southern Traverse counties.

This large area now holds an estimated 200 prairie chickens, many of them the offspring of the earlier, introduced birds.

Trauba said they discovered that the birds require a much larger area than was originally anticipated. The grasslands preserved at Lac qui Parle may occupy what seems like a large area, but the birds offered a different viewpoint, said Trauba. "You guys may think you have a lot of grass, but you really don't,'' he said.

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Booming grounds are the social centers for the birds, said Trauba. Although females will wander great distances, males spend most of their lives within 1½ miles of their home booming ground.

In early spring, the booming grounds serve as dance floors for the bird's courting ritual. Eager males puff their bright, orange cheeks to create a strange, moaning sound that is punctuated by the chicken-like squawks of the females.

These are sounds that haven't been heard on this prairie since the late 1940s; that's when the last of the area's original prairie chickens disappeared due mainly to habitat loss.

Trauba now hopes the birds are here to stay. He'd love nothing more than to see their population grow so that the birds can expand and connect to the home population of prairie chickens in northwestern Minnesota.

A connecting corridor could benefit the native birds by improving genetic diversity. It could also protect the birds should be there ever be a catastrophic population decline in either area.

But first, Trauba and others will be keeping an eye on how the transplanted population manages. As of now, the possible success story reads very much like a drama. Is there enough grassland restored in western Minnesota to support the birds?

No less important, can the prairie chickens co-exist with the area's thriving pheasant population?

Pheasants will lay eggs in prairie chicken nests. The pheasant eggs hatch first, and the prairie chickens are lost as a result. This form of parasitism was found in five of 12 prairie chicken nests last spring in the Lac qui Parle area, said Trauba.

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No matter how the prairie chickens fare here, the information acquired could help with restoration efforts in other parts of the Midwest where the original prairie has similarly been converted to agricultural use, said Trauba.

Prior to European settlement, prairie chickens were an integral part of the Midwest's tallgrass prairie. Trauba considers the prairie chicken an "icon of the prairie.''

He also pointed out that restoring and protecting the habitat that sustains prairie chickens benefits many other types of wildlife, including waterfowl, deer and pheasants.

Their return can benefit people, too, said Trauba. Grasslands like these serve to improve water quality and offer a wide range of recreational opportunities.

There are lots of people who are more than excited to welcome back the prairie chickens and hear their spring time songs of love. During the spring courting ritual, Trauba leads guests to a camouflaged blind where they can watch the antics of the birds on one of their booming grounds. Although the guests must arrive at the blind well before sun rise, Trauba said demand is so great that it is booked for every day of the courting season for weeks in advance.

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