Prairie chicken numbers in Grand Forks County are dwindling. From a peak of more than 300 males in the early 2000s, prairie chickens in the county have declined to about 25 males, which gather on mating grounds called leks and produce an eerie “booming” sound by inflating air sacs on their necks to attract a mate. The prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) that remain west of Grand Forks are remnants of an intensive translocation effort in the 1990s to re-establish the birds in Grand Forks County, where the grouse had all but disappeared.
Erik Fritzell, a retired wildlife biologist and professor, recalls counting chickens in 1966 and 1967 as a UND student; the census was his first real biology job. There weren’t many prairie chickens left even in those days, Fritzell said.
Then, as part of a project that included the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Prairie Chicken Society and the Grand Forks County Wildlife Federation, partners from 1992 to 1998 released 357 prairie chickens on grasslands west of Manvel. Project organizers used prairie chickens from Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska for the releases.
Historically, the Game and Fish Department contracted with Wisconsin prairie chicken researcher John Toepfer to conduct the Grand Forks County survey work after the translocation project began. The birds did well until about 2004, said Gary Huschle, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who assisted with the initial releases and ran the survey route for Toepfer for more than a decade until Toepfer’s death in October 2018.
The population peaked in 2004 at 330 males on their booming grounds, Huschle said. Then, the numbers started going south and kept dropping. Game and Fish offered a prairie chicken season from 2004 through 2009, issuing a limited number of permits by lottery, but discontinued the season in 2010.
Last spring, his final year of running the survey, Huschle said he counted only nine prairie chicken males on one pure booming ground north of U.S. Highway 2 and four single males displaying with sharptails on their dancing ground leks.
Source: In Forum, May 2019
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