Tackling a Prairie Chicken Problem: Ex-Linebacker Helps Out

Listen to the Boom!

Hear the haunting mating call of a male prairie chicken.

"I get the pregame jitters for this just as bad as I did playing ball."

Nate Emery
prairie researcher and former college linebacker

By Chris Anderson

UPDATE/EDITOR'S NOTE: Prairie chickens were last captured in Minnesota and transferred to Wisconsin in 2009 — the year this video was recorded. Since that time, Wisconsin's prairie chicken population has continued to decline, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. For the first time in five years, however, the prairie chicken population at Buena Vista Wildlife Area — Wisconsin's main stronghold and where all of the prairie chickens from Minnesota were released — increased this year by 16 percent from 114 males to 136.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee plan to study in the spring of 2012 whether the genetic diversity of the Buena Vista prairie chicken population has increased thanks to the infusion of new blood from Minnesota.

Nate Emery grabs an enormous fishing net and a metal wand resembling an old TV antennae. He throws on a football helmet that’s fitted with an auto headlight and rushes out onto a vast field of grass.

It’s midnight, and this ex-college linebacker is about to tackle a prairie chicken…in the name of conservation.

Emery, a graduate from the University of Minnesota-Crookston, is leading an effort to capture greater prairie chickens from The Nature Conservancy’s Glacial Ridge Project in western Minnesota and relocate them to Wisconsin, where the species is on the decline due to habitat loss and genetic isolation.

“I get the pregame jitters for this just as bad as I did playing ball,” says Emery as he suits up.

Minnesota Prairie Chickens Doing Well; Wisconsin's…Not So Much

Running down and catching a prairie chicken is tough. It takes skill, patience and teamwork. It also requires technology.

Each of the prairie chickens nabbed by Emery — who is assisted by a small squad of scientists and college students — already wears a lightweight radio collar that allows them to be tracked. These hens were first trapped on Minnesota’s “booming grounds” in the spring, when males strut their stuff and make a booming call to attract a mate.

Before the birds were released, they were fitted with the radio collar. Now they are being recaptured and moved to Wisconsin in the fall, when they are more likely to make themselves at home in their new environs with winter fast approaching.

Even with the advantage of radio telemetry, it would be difficult to catch a prairie chicken on open grassland during the day. That’s why Emery gets to work at night, under the cover of darkness.

Game Plan: How to Tackle a Prairie Chicken

Out on the prairie around midnight, Emery fiddles with the dials on a receiver strapped across his chest and waves the radio telemetry wand in order to pin down a hen’s location.

She is well-camouflaged in the tall grass and Emery is stalking her. The hen has already flushed several times and Emery wants to end this strange game of man and grouse that he’s been playing with the same bird for three hours now.

When he knows he’s within just a few feet, Emery flips a switch and the powerful headlamp mounted atop his helmet shines a blinding light intended to mask his movements and help him see her in the grass.

Emery’s movement slows down to a creep. He finally spots his quarry. He swiftly drops the net.

“Easy bird, easy bird,” Emery says as the ensnared bird flails around in hopes of escaping.

Except for losing some feathers — a defense mechanism intended to confuse a predator into releasing her — she appears to be in good condition. “She feels nice and fat," Emery says. "This will be a good bird for Wisconsin.”

Emery carries the bird back to his truck and places her into a small cardboard box. A little more than 24 hours later, this bird and about a half dozen more will be put on a plane and flown to Wisconsin’s Buena Vista Marsh where they will be immediately released.

The Red Zone

At 24,000 acres, Glacial Ridge is the largest prairie-wetland restoration project in the United States. And because the Conservancy and partners are returning the land to its original condition — native prairie — the prairie chicken population here is booming.

Since 2006, almost 100 prairie chickens have been captured in Minnesota — most of them from Glacial Ridge — and relocated to Wisconsin. The goal is to provide new blood to Wisconsin’s prairie chicken population, which is in danger of collapsing due to genetic isolation caused by loss of grassland habitat.

All three species of prairie chickens — the greater, the lesser, and Attwater's prairie chicken, which is one of the most endangered birds in the United States — are in decline as most of the Great Plains has been converted to other uses and what remains is at risk. Grassland is the most threatened and least protected habitat type in the United States.

This is the last year that Wisconsin will receive prairie chickens from Minnesota. Researchers will study Wisconsin’s population over the next two years and determine if the birds from Glacial Ridge provided the necessary genetic boost.

Regardless, restoring the state’s grassland habitat will be crucial to saving its prairie chicken population, says Lesa Kardash, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

After a long night of chasing down birds, Emery expresses hope that Glacial Ridge and other projects to restore and conserve grasslands will help ensure that prairie chicken populations recover in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

“We ran the evening gauntlet and survived,” Emery says. “Overall, this has been a success. The birds did their job here and we wish them luck as they make new friends and survive in the Badger state.”

Chris Anderson is a senior media relations manager for The Nature Conservancy based in Minneapolis, MN.

September 2009

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