Michael Pearce

June 12, 2013

News from lesser prairie chicken country

Michael Pearce

The Eagle's outdoor reporter highlights the latest hunting, fishing and wildlife news.

A day-old lesser prairie chicken fitted with a tracking device for research in Gove County Monday morning. MICHAEL PEARCE/THE WICHITA EAGLE As the federal government moves closer to putting lesser prairie chickens on their threatened or endangered species lists, state agencies, colleges, wildlife and agriculture groups are working together to learn more about the grouse of the short grass and sand/sage prairie.

Here are a few bits of information. Sunday’s outdoors page in The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com/outdoors will have more complete details. A photo gallery about 50 photos will also be posted online.

– Biologists are currently studying the birds in all five states with lesser prairie chicken populations, – Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

– Three teams of biologists have been studying Kansas lessers in extreme southwest Kansas,  the Red Hills region northwest of Medicine Lodge and the Gove/Logan County Smoky Hill country south of Oakley.

– The further south and west you go, the worse the drought and, generally, the worse the conditions for good lesser habitat. The Colorado population, small for a long time, may have really taken some serious damage from five or so years of on-going drought.

– Researchers in the Smoky and Red Hills were impressed with the numbers of adult birds they found when they started studying the birds late last winter and early this spring. Drought the previous two years had impacted the populations some, but probably not as much as with the greater prairie chickens in the Smoky Hills.

– Probably the best lek in that Smoky Hill region consistently held about 21 displaying males. Researchers were downright shocked to find 17 hens on the lek one morning earlier this spring. Normally it’s a good morning if 10 to 20 percent of the birds on a lek are females, since most only come a time or two to get bred. Male lesser prairie chickens are still attending leks in some places, as they’ve been doing for about the past four months. MICHAEL PEARCE/FILE PHOTO – Overall grassland habitat is fair to poor across the Smoky Hills because of grazing and the drought. CRP fields, many of which have been hayed or grazed the past two summers, offer little habitat. Some biologists have claimed CRP is why the birds have done so well across western Kansas the past 20 or so years.

– Nest survival hasn’t been as good as hoped in some areas, probably because the lack of good habitat makes the nests and nesting hens more vulnerable to predation.

– Chicks began hatching in the Smoky Hills late last week. At least one brood of chicks has already perished to the 100-plus degree heat of the past few days. Researchers are studying lesser prairie chickens in three locations in Kansas, like these biologists Monday morning in Gove County. MICHAEL PEARCE/THE WICHITA EAGLE – Males are still attending leks in some fairly impressive numbers. Monday morning researchers in Gove County counted 14 males and 3 females on a lek on the Fleming Ranch. At least one of the females was known to be a bird that had lost her eggs earlier. She may try to renest if she’s been bred again.

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