Researchers' efforts helping revive prairie chicken populationby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Crookston, Minn. — Prairie Chickens nearly disappeared from the Minnesota landscape as prairie habitat became farmland, but the birds are making a comeback on the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge near Crookston.
There are now an estimated 2,000 Prairie Chickens on the refuge.
In fact, they're doing so well, researchers catch birds to send to Wisconsin in hopes of re-establishing the prairie chicken there.
After sunset, Nate Emery loads equipment into a battered Toyota truck with a large antenna on the roof.
The best time to catch prairie chickens is in the dark.
Emery is studying prairie chicken habitats. This spring, he caught 32 hens and attached a small radio transmitter to each one. He's tracked their movements all summer. There are 22 left; surviving the hawks, owls and coyotes that patrol the refuge.
In search of prairie chickens
The sky is filled with stars as we drive away from the refuge office, but Nate Emery would rather have rain and fog.
After bumping down a rutted dirt road, Emery stops the truck to listen for a radio signal from the prairie chicken hen. The chirp tells him she's in range.
A second truck pulls up behind driven by Jen Ruch, a grad student from Winnipeg who's also studying prairie chickens and is helping with the capture.
Nate Emery straps on an old football helmet with a spotlight bolted to the top wired to a battery in his backpack. In one hand he has what looks like a television antenna; in the other hand he carries a supersized fishing net with a 10-foot handle.
Emery and Ruch each have a radio receiver slung around their neck. Ruch straps a headlamp over her ball cap, grabs her antenna and net and they start hiking across the prairie.
The headlamps stay off until they get close to a bird. It's so dark you can't actually see the ground you're walking on, and people a few paces ahead are just shadows. Nate Emery jokes he hopes no one steps on a skunk. The tall grass is heavy with dew; everyone is soon soaked to the waist.
After about a half-mile hike the researchers close in on the chicken. They turn on the headlamps and inch forward, scanning the tangled prairie grass for the well camouflaged bird.
The hen explodes from the grass and flies off into the dark. The researchers find her radio signal and start off on another half-mile slog.
This time the chase ends with Jen Ruch dropping her fishnet over the bird and diving to catch it before it can escape. The hen is alert and healthy, a few lost feathers the only apparent effect of the capture.
Nate Emery carefully tucks the bird under his arm and the researchers hike back to the truck. Jen Ruch has captured many prairie chickens, but she says the experience never gets routine.
Back at the truck, the chicken is tucked into a cardboard box. Later, she'll be released in Wisconsin.
Loss of habitat in Wisconsin resulted in little genetic diversity among remaining prairie chickens. It's hoped bringing in birds from Minnesota will improve the gene pool among Wisconsin birds and result in an expanded population of Greater Prairie Chickens.
The research is also telling Nate Emery a lot about what habitat prairie chickens prefer and the kind of insects they need for the optimum food supply. All of that information will help wildlife managers create the best habitat to support the prairie chicken.
The first bird took about an hour to catch. This project is as much about patience and persistence as it is science.
The next bird takes nearly five hours to catch, and that's not unusual.
But the researchers say it's worth the effort to help ensure the survival of a feisty native of the Minnesota prairie.
- Morning Edition, 09/02/2009, 7:25 a.m.