Most of the native prairie east of the Mississippi is now farmland, but there are still a few isolated spots where remnants of prairie survive… and with them a prairie icon… the greater prairie chicken, but prairie chickens need a lot of habitat… and in places such as Illinois, Wisconsin and other states, only a few hundred birds survive. One state is having better luck, and some of its birds are being moved to help revive other prairie chicken populations. The GLRC’s Dan Gunderson reports:
Most of the native prairie east of the Mississippi is
now farmland, but there are still a few isolated spots
where remnants of prairie survive; and with them a
prairie icon: the greater prairie chicken. But prairie
chickens need a lot of habitat, and in places such as
Illinois, Wisconsin and other states, only a few
hundred birds survive. One state is having better
luck, and some of its birds are being moved to help
revive other prairie chicken populations. The GLRC’s
Dan Gunderson reports:
The prairie chickens are ghostly shapes in the grey
predawn light of this spring morning.
(sound of prairie chickens in)
The cocks cackle as they fight off other males. They
inflate the orange sacks on their necks and make a
mournful echoing sound. Tail feathers erect they strut
about trying to impress the hens, who sit quietly
This 5,000 acre chunk of native prairie in Minnesota
has never been plowed. The prairie chickens have
always lived here. Today it’s owned by the Nature
Conservancy and known as the Bluestem Prairie.
Brian Winter manages the land. This morning he’s in a
small plywood blind counting prairie chickens on their
booming ground. About 40 males are strutting their
“In Minnesota it’s a success story and we hope it gets
to be an even more successful success story than what it is
Genetic diversity is one of the keys to a species
survival. In many states, prairie chickens are so
isolated the gene pool becomes weak. In Minnesota
there are flocks of prairie chickens along the western
edge of the state. Brian Winter says those flocks are
close enough to keep the gene pool from getting
“So there’s interbreeding as birds disperse in the fall.”
(sound of chickens tussling)
“Nice fight just took place right there. The research that’s been done looking at the genetics shows the
Minnesota population is one of the best in terms of
Brian Winter says 20 years ago there were an
estimated 2,000 prairie chickens in Minnesota.
Today the population is approaching 10,000. The
prairie chicken is stable enough in Minnesota that
there’s been a limited hunting season the past two
years. In the past few years, several hundred
Minnesota chickens have helped rebuild populations
in North Dakota, Illinois and Wisconsin. Later this
summer, Minnesota prairie chickens will be captured
and moved by the Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Society,
in an effort to save a population declining in size and
Dave Sample with the Wisconsin DNR says the state
hopes to set aside 15,000 acres of grassland for
prairie chicken habitat in the next ten years. But he
says the birds won’t survive without a genetic infusion.
“In order to increase genetics in a compromised
population you do need to bring an infusion in from
outside. You pretty much have to go where genetics
are good and bring those birds in to mix with ours.”
Sample says there’s no guarantee the Wisconsin
prairie chicken population will survive, but he thinks
expanding the genetic pool will be a big step in the
Earl Johnson is Regional Wildlife Manager for the
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He
says the prairie chicken success reflects a
conservation success. Johnson says the federal
Conservation Reserve Program has turned thousands
of acres of marginal farmland back into grassland.
That makes good prairie chicken habitat. Johnson
says Minnesota is very fortunate to have a healthy
prairie chicken population.
“What’s the long term future for the prairie chicken? I’d hate to guess, but we are happy to help any states
that want our assistance by transplanting birds.”
Johnson calls the prairie chicken the prairie poster
child. Hundreds of people come from across the
country every spring to sit in blinds and watch the
mating dance. Johnson says interest is growing every
year. At the Bluestem Prairie, the Nature
Conservancy blinds are full almost every day during
the spring. Brian Winter says people from every state
have traveled here to see the spring spectacle unique
to the prairie grassland.
Despite its success, the prairie chicken population is
only as stable as its habitat. Winter says the prairie
chicken may be the most visible prairie resident, but
what’s good for the prairie chicken is good for many
other species as well.
“It’s going to be meadowlarks and bobolinks and
mallard ducks and a whole variety of grassland birds
that just require grassland habitat to survive, and
without it they’re just not going to be there.”
And that’s going to require larger grassland areas.
Too much of the prairie has disappeared in many
states to support healthy numbers of prairie chickens.
That means if the prairie chicken is to survive more of
the marginal farmland, the poorer quality farmland,
needs to be returned to prairie.
For the GLRC, I’m Dan Gunderson.
(sound of mating prairie chickens)