BUTLER COUNTY — In battered old farm pickups and shiny SUVs from the city, about two dozen hunters gathered where fields of agriculture met miles of unbroken prairie Saturday morning to continue one of the longest hunting traditions in Kansas.
“I was nine when I first carried a gun in 1959,” said Steve Sundgren, host of the annual opening day prairie chicken hunt on land his family has ranched for about a century. “I know they’d been doing it a few years before that.”
The invitation-only event was started by Sundgren’s father and uncle about the time modern prairie chicken seasons began in the Flint Hills.
Populations then, longtime participants remember, were amazing.
The glory years
“It was something, to see flocks of 200 birds, and it wasn’t just one flock but several,” said Jim Kerlin, who has made the trip most of the 50-plus years from Tulsa, “and that doesn’t include all of the other flocks.”
Back then seasons as short as two days saw hunters from many states come to the Flint Hills.
Hard-working ranchers took a few days to entertain family and friends. Civic groups in tiny towns now all but gone held pancake feeds and ferried hunters to fields to raise funds for local causes.
Probably no hunting spot was more coveted than the Sundgren Ranch, a few miles south of Cassoday, the self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World.”
Kerlin remembers gunning with 70 guests, including professional athletes, governors, U.S. representatives, television personalities and multi-millionaires.
For decades, the opener at the Sundgren’s was as much an event as a hunt. Many hunters arrived on Friday and went afield mornings and afternoons on Saturday and Sunday.
What happened between the hunts was about as important as the great hunting.
“When it was two days and really big, Jacque would start cooking two to three weeks in advance,” Sundgren said of his wife. Visiting hunters often cooked things like catfish and assorted wild game for the crowd.
Last year the hunt was shortened to one day because of declining hunter numbers and declining numbers of prairie chickens.
Mark Kennedy left his home near Kansas City at 3 a.m. to be at Saturday’s hunt. He’s been coming for about 25 years, and his father was an annual guest about 20 years before that.
“I remember several years when we had the flocks of 100 or more birds,” said Kennedy, “now if we see one of 30 to 50, you’re like ‘wow.’ The populations dropped dramatically, so quickly.”
Sundgren said it was about 20 years ago that range experts began urging annual burning and heavily grazing pastures when new grass popped to the surface.
“It didn’t take long after that, it happened so quickly,” Sundgren said of the decline in prairie chickens. “Now they burn for miles and miles, and there’s nothing left for nesting . nothing.”
A recent study by Kansas State University and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks showed populations have decreased up to 30 percent per year in many parts of the Flint Hills. Populations have shown moderate rebounds when pastures aren’t burned, like after years of drought.
Since the same studies showed hunting usually accounts for less than one percent of prairie chicken mortalities, Sundgren has continued the event.
“Hunting’s not the problem, not at all,” said Sundgren, who manages his grasslands for the optimal benefit of greater prairie chickens and his cattle herd. “They’re my favorite bird. They’re tough … they just need habitat and they’ll survive.”
Still, Saturday will be the only day prairie chicken hunting is allowed on the 7,000 acres he owns or manages.
This year’s hunt
When drought prevented many ranchers from burning last spring, Sundgren hoped the birds would respond with good nesting success. He thinks they did.
“I saw good broods when I was working cattle or cutting hay,” he said. “It wasn’t like it used to be, but it was good to see.”
Sundgren said increased numbers of meadowlarks were also a good sign, since they’re also a ground-nesting species impacted by burning and heavy grazing.
But more prairie chickens on the prairie and more prairie chickens flying over hunters waiting by grain fields are two different things.
“It’s been so warm they have no need to come to grain,” he said as he waited by a hay bale Saturday morning. “They can stay out on the prairie and feed. Most of our really good hunts have come after we’ve had a big killing freeze that’s killed off the insects.”
About 40 prairie chickens flew into the fields Saturday morning, most between the well-spaced hunters.
Young Drake Stoudenmyer, of Bucyrus, was the only hunter to take a bird on the morning hunt. In the afternoon, hunters shot three more birds. Sundgren is confident colder weather will bring bigger flocks of birds.
It was only the second time Kennedy didn’t shoot at least one bird.
He wasn’t too disappointed.
More than just hunting
“I enjoy the hunt, but I really enjoy the people as much,” he said. “They come from all over, we become friends and a lot of times this is the only chance we get to see each other.”
Kerlin agrees. Even though fading eyesight kept him from heading afield, he said he wouldn’t have missed the time around the Sundgren ranchstead.
“A lot of these guys are like an extended family,” he said. “When I first came Steve was nine. I’ve watched him grow up, his kids grow up and now I’m watching his grandkids grow up. It’s all been a lot of fun.”
After the morning’s hunt most gathered in a huge metal shed to eat biscuits and gravy brought by a guest for breakfast. The Sundgrens were serving sloppy Joes for lunch and lasagna for dinner after an afternoon hunt.
Games of pitch were expected, when hunters would swap stories about past practical jokes at the hunt, and times when guests shot more than 100 birds in a morning.
“… and we didn’t put a dent in the population,” Sundgren said of the great flocks from about 1955-1995.
But he worries declining prairie chicken and hunter numbers may mean the event has run its course.
“Jackie and I wonder if (numbers) don’t get better if this might be our last year,” Sundgren said as he left the field Saturday morning. “But that would mean I wouldn’t get to see a lot of our good friends.”