04-22-19 CPW News: Four-year project sees hundreds of lesser prairie chickens reintroduced in SE Colorado, Kansas grasslands

Four-year project sees hundreds of lesser prairie chickens reintroduced in SE Colorado, Kansas grasslands

SCOTT CITY, KS – Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists on Saturday wrapped up a grueling month spent trapping lesser prairie chickens on their breeding grounds – also known as leks – in five counties of western Kansas. It was part of a four-year effort to re-establish the colorful birds on their native sand sagebrush and grasslands in Colorado.


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CPW wildlife biologists April Estep and Rebecca Schilowsky release lesser prairie chickens from boxes after they were captured in western Kansas. Each bird was weighed and measured, examined by a veterinarian, given an identification bracelet and color-coded bands and outfitted with a tracking device so biologists can track them in coming years.

The CPW wildlife biologists, led by Jonathan Reitz and Liza Rossi, worked seven days a week, rising well before dawn each day and sitting for hours in blinds, shivering in the dark in below-freezing temperatures, to catch lesser prairie chickens.

CPW wildlife biologists, led by Jonathan Reitz and Liza Rossi, erected large electromagnetic drop nets above lesser prairie chicken breeding grounds, known as leks. They worked in the dark, often in temperatures below freezing, and then hid in camouflaged blinds on the perimeter of the lek to wait for the birds to arrive at dawn.

The biologists used large, remotely controlled drop nets and traps to catch the birds.The biologists hid on the perimeter of the breeding grounds and waited for the birds to arrive at dawn and begin their courtship rituals.

Each bird is examined for illness, injury and age. Here, wing feathers are measured and studied for an age estimate of the bird.

Male lesser prairie chickens put on dramatic displays to attract a hen. They will establish a territory on the lek, then bow, drop their wings and raise pinnae feathers on their necks, bringing them to a point behind their heads as they challenge other males.

CPW wildlife biologist Kat Bernier carefully held a male lesser prairie chicken after it was trapped by a drop net.

The males can be heard stomping their feet in a mating dance, and they boom by inflating a red sac on their neck and quickly releasing the air. They also make a loud cackling noise as they engage in mock battles, flying into the air and confronting rivals on the breeding grounds.

Two male lesser prairie chickens spar in a mock battle as they try to display dominance in their effort to win a mate.

When they wandered under the net, biologists dropped it and raced to the lek to secure them. The birds were bagged and taken to a field lab where the biologists weighed and measured them, tagged and banded them before driving them 3 1/2 hours to southeast Colorado for release the same day. The team also released chickens in far southwest Kansas to rebuild populations there.

Male lesser prairie chickens can be heard stomping their feet in a mating dance, and they boom by inflating a red sac on their neck and quickly releasing the air. They also make a cackling noise that can be heard as they engage in mock battles, flying into the air and confronting rivals on the breeding grounds.

Now, the biologists will spend the summer months monitoring newly established Colorado leks and nests to determine if the rare and vulnerable birds are taking up residence or have flown the coop for home.

It’s an ambitious plan to restore lesser prairie chickens, which once numbered in the tens of thousands in Colorado but had mostly disappeared in recent years.

A lesser prairie chicken hen shows off her radio collar, identifying leg band and color-coded leg bands prior to being released.

The CPW team, led by Reitz and Rossi, worked in collaboration with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, Kansas State University and the U.S. Forest Service.

Some lesser prairie chickens were equipped with solar-powered GPS backpacks that are designed to transmit their location 10 times a day for the next four years. Already, chickens released with the GPS devices in previous years of the project have been tracked as far away as Texas.

The target recovery area is a 330,000-acre swath of sand sagebrush and grasslands straddling the two states including the Comanche National Grassland in Baca County, Colo., and the Cimarron National Grassland in Morton County, Kan., as well as privately owned rangeland and Conservation Reserve Program grassland. Both the Comanche and Cimarron grasslands are owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Historically, the region was home to large flocks of lesser prairie chickens. But the conversion a century ago of grasslands to cropland, and the resulting Dust Bowl in 1932, wiped out many of the birds.

Detail of a lesser prairie chicken wing being examined.

More recently, the lesser prairie chicken population was devastated by severe snowstorms, particularly in December 2006, followed by years of drought. By 2016, biologists counted just two males on the Comanche and five males on the Cimarron.

Over the past four years, Reitz and Rossi have relocated 103 males and 102 females to the Comanche. The team also released 101 males and 105 females during the same time period just east of the state line in Kansas, making this the largest known translocation effort for lesser prairie chickens.

But re-establishing populations isn’t as simple as catch-and-release. Reitz and Rossi discovered the birds often don’t easily adjust to their new surroundings.

“They often take flight upon release and can travel great distances,” Reitz said. “We’ve observed some traveling 60 miles or more from the release site.”

The CPW team knows exactly how far some travel because they attached monitoring devices to the chickens before their release. Most got beacons that allow them to be tracked by radios using a special antenna. Others were fitted with solar powered, GPS backpacks that transmit the chickens’ location 10 times a day. CPW expects to monitor them for the next two years.

“We know some birds flew to Texas and Oklahoma,” Reitz said. “It’s not uncommon for them to take off upon release and fly great circles before eventually returning to the release spot and settling down.”

And that leads into the next phase of this wildlife conservation effort.

“Our technicians will track them on the ground as the birds spread out,” Reitz said. “We will use an airplane to find them and point our technicians in the right direction. We want to know if hens are nesting and whether they succeed in hatching chicks.”

In the past when Colorado had few chickens, biologists were employing some high-tech devices to trick the roosters into staying. CPW deployed “call boxes” programmed to play cackles and other sounds to entice male lesser prairie chickens to stay on a lek.

A blind sitting in the grass perimeter of a lesser prairie chicken, or lek, where CPW biologists huddle for hours in the dark and in freezing temperatures each day for a month as they try to catch birds for release in Colorado.

This year, however, CPW is releasing birds on an active lek for the first time. The goal is for them to join birds from the previous year’s translocation efforts. Biologists are hopeful the chickens will stick around.

A doctoral candidate and three master’s students from Kansas State area have been assisting with the data collection and analysis.

CPW is an enterprise agency, relying primarily on license sales, state parks fees and registration fees to support its operations, including: 41 state parks and more than 350 wildlife areas covering approximately 900,000 acres, management of fishing and hunting, wildlife watching, camping, motorized and non-motorized trails, boating and outdoor education. CPW’s work contributes approximately $6 billion in total economic impact annually throughout Colorado.

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Liza Rossi, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Bird Conservation Coordinator, and Trent Delahanty, CPW technician, release two lesser prairie chickens on the Comanche National Grasslands during a recent relocation from Kansas. Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (2017)

Abby Athen, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, uses calipers to measure a male lesser prairie chicken. Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (2017)

RELATED STORY FROM 2017

CAMPO, Colo. — Why did the lesser prairie chicken cross the state line?

Well, if Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists are successful, the answer will be to rebuild populations of the rare and vulnerable bird that has mostly disappeared from the sagebrush and grasslands of the southeast corner of the state.

Wildlife biologists Jonathan Reitz and Liza Rossi recently concluded a busy month-long effort to catch and relocate lesser prairie chickens from stronghold populations in Kansas. It’s part of a joint four-year operation between CPW, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the U.S. Forest Service to rebuild prairie chicken populations in a 330,000-acre swath of southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas.

The target recovery area includes privately owned rangeland, Conservation Reserve Program grassland, the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas and the Comanche National Grassland in Baca County, Colo. Both the Cimarron and Comanche grasslands are owned and managed by the forest service.

Historically, the region was home to large flocks of lesser prairie chickens. But the Dust Bowl in 1932 wiped out many of the birds. More recently, the lesser prairie chicken population was devastated by a severe snowstorm in December 2006 followed by years of drought. By 2016, biologists counted just two males on the Comanche and five males on the Cimarron.

A female (hen) lesser prairie chicken – notice the short pinnae feathers. Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (2017)

Last fall, Reitz and Rossi relocated 13 males and one female to Comanche. Their recent spring efforts were more successful, relocating 19 hens and 29 roosters. And they have ambitious goals over the next two years, targeting around 120 lesser prairie chickens for relocation to Colorado.

A male (rooster) lesser prairie chicken – notice the yellow eye comb and the long “pinnae” feathers on the neck create a broad, dark line down the side. Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (2017)

But the wildlife biologists are discovering a big problem with relocating the birds. Roosters naturally gather in what is known as a “lek” to perform displays designed to attract hens for mating. But they don’t adapt well when their lek is disrupted.

“Their home lek is the center of their universe,” Reitz said. “Many relocated birds appear to be very unsettled, having been removed from that center.”

They often take flight in hopes of returning to their home leks.

“We have observed several prairie chickens having traveled 30 miles or more from the release site,” he said.

A male lesser prairie chicken flying. Note its yellow eye comb and long pinnae feathers. Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (2017)

CPW biologists are hopeful the new project, targeting a much larger number of birds and using sophisticated technology to retain and track the birds, will succeed where less-sophisticated efforts failed decades ago.

For example, each bird is being banded and outfitted with a radio transmitter. CPW crews on the ground and in the air track the movements of the birds. The transmitters emit a distinct signal when the bird has died so CPW staff can find them and try to determine a cause of death.

Also, they are being released in larger groups in hopes of reducing the urge to fly home.

Biologists are even employing some high tech devices to trick them into staying. At release sites, CPW staff is deploying “call boxes” programmed to play cackles and other sounds male lesser prairie chickens make to call on a lek.

“We have technicians on the ground tracking the birds as they spread out,” Reitz said. “We will be using an airplane to find them and point our technicians in the right direction. So we can determine if hens are nesting and whether they succeed in hatching chicks.”

A male lesser prairie chicken displaying in a “lek” during breeding season. Besides his display, the male also makes sounds known as “booming” as part of the ritual. Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (2017)

Already, CPW biologists are seeing signs of success. Several of the recently relocated birds are remaining in the release area. And recently, CPW technicians documented a group of relocated birds “booming” together.

More trapping is planned in April 2018 and 2019. And a doctoral candidate from Kansas State University will join the project in August to assist with the data collection and analysis as tracking and research of the birds’ movements proceeds.

PHOTO CREDITS: Copyright photos by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

CPW is an enterprise agency, relying primarily on license sales, state parks fees and registration fees to support its operations, including: 41 state parks and more than 350 wildlife areas covering approximately 900,000 acres, management of fishing and hunting, wildlife watching, camping, motorized and non-motorized trails, boating and outdoor education. CPW’s work contributes approximately $6 billion in total economic impact annually throughout Colorado.

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