In the early 1900s, prairie chickens were abundant in Minnesota, found everywhere in the state except the Iron Range. But as farms grew larger, prairie grasslands shrank, and so did the prairie chicken population.
The prairie chickens are ghostly shapes in the grey predawn light of an April morning. The cocks cackle as they fight off other males on a lek, or mating ground, about 15 miles east of Moorhead, Minnesota.
The cocks inflate the orange sacks on their necks, and make a mournful echoing sound -- a bit like someone blowing across the top of a bottle. With tail and neck feathers erect, they strut about trying to impress the hens, who sit quietly watching.
The 5,000-acre chunk of native prairie has never been plowed, and it's likely prairie chickens lived here long before farmers arrived. The land is owned by the Nature Conservancy and known as the Bluestem Prairie.
Brian Winter manages this land. This morning he's in a small plywood blind, counting prairie chickens who come to the lek, or mating ground. About 40 males are strutting their stuff this morning.
"In Minnesota it's a success story, and we hope it gets to be an even more successful success story than it is right now," says Winter.
Genetic diversity is one of the keys survival of a species, and that's a big factor in the success of the Greater Prairie Chicken. In many states, small remnant flocks of 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 from Crookston to Rothsay. Winter says those flocks are close enough to keep the gene pool from getting stagnant.
"There's interbreeding as birds disperse in the fall. You get genetic interchange within our population. And we're near enough to the remnants of the North Dakota and South Dakota populations that there still may be some genetic interchange that's occurring," says Winter. "The research that's been done looking at the genetics shows the Minnesota population is one of the best in terms of genetic diversity."
Brian Winter says 20 years ago there were an estimated 2,000 Greater Prairie Chickens in Minnesota. Today the population is approaching 10,000, according to Winter.
The prairie chicken is stable enough in Minnesota that there's been a limited hunting season the past two years.
The Department of Natural Resources is trying to establish prairie chickens around Appleton and Montevideo. Officials say a small flock is breeding in the area, but faces tough competition from pheasants.
The pheasants lay eggs in the prairie chicken nest. Since pheasant eggs hatch first, the hens leave the nest before the prairie chicken eggs hatch.
Still, experts believe they can establish prairie chickens in and around the Lac Qui Parle Wildlife Refuge.
In the past few years, several hundred Minnesota chickens have been captured and relocated to help rebuild populations in North Dakota, Illinois and Wisconsin. There's even talk of moving Minnesota birds to Texas to help save a cousin, the Atwater Prairie Chicken.
Earl Johnson, area wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says the prairie chicken success reflects a conservation success. Johnson says the federal Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, has turned thousands of acres of marginal farmland into grassland, which makes good prairie chicken habitat.
Johnson says Minnesota is very fortunate to have a healthy prairie chicken population.
"Really, all prairie grouse are diminishing throughout the continent. The greater prairie chicken is diminishing in many states, as is the sharp-tailed grouse. What's the long term future for the prairie chicken? I'd hate to guess. But we are happy to help any state that wants our assistance by transplanting birds," says Johnson.
Johnson calls the prairie chicken the prairie poster child, perhaps the most recognizable denizen of the prairie. Hundreds of people come from across the country every spring to sit in blinds and watch the mating dance, and interest is growing every year, according to Johnson.
At the Bluestem Prairie near Moorhead, the Nature Conservancy blinds are full almost every day from early April until late May.
Brian Winter says people from every state have traveled to this windblown landscape to see the spring spectacle unique to the prairie grassland.
Despite its success, the prairie chicken population is only as stable as its habitat, according to Winter, who says protecting grassland habitat is critical.
And Winter says 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 require grassland habitat to survive, and without it they're just not going to be there,' says Winter.
The mating dance of the Greater Prairie Chicken is something Brian Winter has watched and listened to for nearly 20 years. He wants to make sure future generations will enjoy the spectacle too.
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