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Thursday, July 31, 2014

A great hunt for lessers

EDWARDS COUNTY — The sand tired us physically, swallowing and holding our feet at every tugged step.

The sandhills taxed us mentally. Short but steep, we'd crest one and see more as far as our eyes could see. They made our late November quest like looking for a needle in an endless number of haystacks.

And so many times those feathered needles flushed far out of shotgun range with a laugh-like cackle several hills away.

With every passing minute we grew more fatigued, frustrated and determined.

Walking up lesser prairie chickens is probably the toughest hunt in Kansas. So it should be for the rarest American gamebird.

Kansas is the only state with a lesser prairie chicken season and the annual take is estimated at about 300. The fraternity of us specifically pursuing the birds is minuscule.

Pending federal action could cease our hunting totally because of population declines in some areas.

Never easy

Hunting lessers has never had a huge following. Unlike greater prairie chickens, which once ranged over about one-third of America and well into Canada, lessers have never been wide-spread.

At best, their range was adjoining portions of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. Their habitat of prickly cactus and yucca is home to searing drought, brutal blizzards and sparse human populations.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s nearly smothered the birds to extinction, yet a few somehow survived. Numbers swelled rapidly when rains finally came.

But while prairie chickens can handle Mother Nature's heaviest punches, they have no tolerance for even the smallest jabs of civilization into their habitat.

Beginning about 40 years ago, vast amounts of their prairie went under the plow as an ocean of underground water was tapped to create irrigated cropfields.

Scattered oil and gas rigs also soured broad expanses of perfect habitat. Over-grazing pulled thousands of acres of habitat from beneath the birds.

More recently, lessers have been punished with severe drought over much of their remaining range.

Things like wind farms and the resulting powerlines loom as growing threats.


I've long held a special interest in lesser prairie chickens.

They were the last piece of a boyhood dream of hunting all of Kansas' huntable upland gamebirds. In 1985, they came after bobwhite and scaled quail, woodcock, pheasant, greater prairie chickens, Rio Grande and eastern wild turkeys.

Every lesser has been earned.

My Morton County host in 1985 made no guarantees, except there were a lot of birds. We may walk all weekend and never see one, he said, or we may see them all and all flush far out of range.

The crow-sized birds have held my attention ever since.

About a dozen years ago, when many feared for the species' future, I played a tiny part in rare good news on lesser prairie chickens.

A farmer friend told me he thought he'd found sizable flocks of lessers in Logan and Gove counties.

Neither he nor a dead bird he showed me knew at that time the closest known lesser prairie chicken range was supposed to be 60 miles to the south.

I passed the word to a biologist. A few months later, he confirmed at least six lesser breeding leks on one Gove County ranch. Other surveys that spring found lesser populations in about a dozen new western Kansas counties. More years of searching have added more areas.

Ranchers in the new areas still chuckle that the birds had escaped "official" notice while they'd known about them for many years.

Lessers are far from a rarity in many places. On assorted recent trips to western Kansas, I found flocks daily. But my few days on about 50,000 acres is far from scientific data. Official Kansas surveys show numbers are stable or slightly growing in the region.

Meanwhile in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, lesser habitat and populations have declined rapidly. Poor weather conditions have set some populations back in New Mexico and extreme southwest Kansas. Numbers are low where we found many in 1985.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service push to place the species on the federal threatened and endangered species list has grown greatly in the past few years. Minds smarter than mine will settle the issue soon.

My first concern is for the species. A distant second is that a listing will end lesser prairie chicken hunting. That could send a message that hunting is part of the problem.

Facts say that's ludicrous. A study on greater prairie chickens showed only four birds of more than 1,000 banded for research were shot by humans. Lessers generally live in even more remote areas with less chance of encountering hunters.

Hunting until the end

No matter what the feds bring, lessers will continue to add to my outdoors life.

This spring I hope to place viewing blinds on breeding leks on a ranch with pure lessers and another where lessers, greaters and their hybrids dance together.

Come future falls, I'll stop to watch them fly from sight when I flush lessers on my hunts for mule deer, antelope or quail.

And while legal, I'll continue to occasionally hunt the birds. Most times I'll be with others from around the nation wanting to experience hunting lesser prairie chickens while they can.

I have a list of biologists, taxidermists and museums wanting a bird for display or research if I succeed.

Many will end up disappointed. The Kansas season is six weeks and the limit is one per day. The birds themselves are the biggest challenge.

About two weeks ago, St. John's Tom Turner took Virginian Joe Herzog, Minnesotan Rehan Nana and me to a broad pasture he manages near the Arkansas River. Owned by avid hunters, the ranch is managed for all kinds of wildlife, including lesser prairie chickens.

Cattle grazing patterns are timed to preserve great habitat. White plastic clips sit atop fences to reduce fatal collisions for flying lessers.

We found no shortage of birds, thanks to the quality of the habitat and Turner's knowledge of the area.

We flushed from a half-dozen to about 30 every time we walked wide, tiring circles.

No doubt we saw more than 100 lessers that day, yet by noon none had flushed within range.

By then, Herzog was worn out but Nana was more determined with each step. The lifelong bird hunter vowed that if he killed a bird, it would be his first trip to a taxidermist.

I managed a long shot on a male lesser after probably our fifth mile of fast hiking. In the final minutes of the day, a lesser flushed within range and Nana shot it down.

A few days later the 26-year-old sent an e-mail saying his legs still ached, but it was worth it. It was obvious he had formed a deep respect for lesser prairie chickens, their habitat and the hunting.

So it should always be when hunting the rarest American gamebird.

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