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Kansas prairie chickens relocate to help Missouri

SALINA — This past week, 16 Missouri employees camped out in a Kansas motel, keeping a vampire's schedule.

Each night they headed to the fields to find the shy, elusive prairie chicken — and bring 60 hens and chicks back to Missouri.

They needed nets, glow sticks and a radio antenna. Even then, capturing one out of every three chickens they chased was a good night.

The goal: Replenish Missouri's prairie chicken population.

Just a few years ago, Missouri prairie chickens numbered in the hundreds, pushed out of their native habitat to make way for non-native grasses, such as fescue, where they cannot live.

Kansas, on the other hand, is too dry for fescue, and its greater prairie chickens thrived, enough that they can be hunted.

Three years ago, the Missouri Conservation Department started importing the chickens from Kansas, with permission, and putting them into land it's rebuilding as prairie.

Prairie chickens need such a diverse habitat that they're a good indicator of prairie health. They need a habitat with grass that is tall and short, thin and thick.

If the population carries on, the department knows its effort to replenish native prairie grass is going well.

So this past week and probably for longer, the Missouri employees were in Salina, where they'll stay until they collect 60 hens and chicks.

The task is made possible by collars that send radio signals, attached to the hens by the Conservation Department this spring.

An elusive quarry

On Wednesday night, the group split into three groups and spent until 4 a.m. following the hens' radio signals.

One group of six pulled up to a barbed wire fence — the owner had given permission — and suited up with their gear. They attached glow sticks to almost everything.

The group consisted of telemeter Tom Thompson, who tracked the radio signals; wildlife biologists Eric Merritt and Ryan Jones; resource assistant Randy Jones; Max Alleger, who's in charge of the department's grassland bird efforts; and forester Gary Gognat.

The group squeezed through the fence and set off. Thompson led the way, following the radio signal of the four birds in the immediate area. The first hen seemed to be about a quarter-mile away, through fields of knee-high grass pocked with ditches and badger holes. Headlamps went dark soon after to avoid scaring the hens.

Thompson stopped frequently to maneuver the group to the perfect spot, far enough away to quietly unfurl a four-person net without spooking the bird. Four held the large net while Thompson scoped the area.

They attached two neon lights to the net, facing the hen, while Thompson found her and put down another glowing light. At Thompson's signal, they started walking toward the chicken, then broke into a run. When the lights lined up, they dropped the net around where they hoped the chicken slept.

One person with a single net hovered nearby to grab any stragglers. The sound of wings flapping generally means they've failed.

"Down!" someone yelled, and Thompson turned a spotlight to the net.

Although the chicken didn't fly off, no one could find her. The spotlight moved, slowly, through the grass and dirt. Nothing.

Thompson moved the spotlight outside of the net area. Finally he found her, and she took off.

Merritt took a few steps in pursuit, but she was gone.

"Unbelievable," Alleger said.

Now they knew she was alone, without chicks.

They've found an unusually small number of chicks this year, and they're not sure why. One department worker speculated Kansas' heavy rains earlier this year were to blame. When chicks are small, one rainfall can wipe out the population.

Either way, this hen disappeared, not to be caught by this group.

"As you might have ascertained, this is not an exact science," Alleger said.

They headed for the next chicken, which flew away. That's how most of the night went.

The moon came out and the air cooled to a comfortable temperature. They drove to another area and chased a hen that was warned off by a non-collared ally.

It was strikeout after strikeout, so they switched strategy.

Merritt and Thompson left with the net and telemetry equipment. The other men sat in the field, waiting and listening to cows and insects.

Merritt returned after about 45 minutes with news of success, the group's one catch of the night.

Their work ended with the sun. At sunrise, the chickens are ready to start their day and even harder to catch.

The overall haul was five hens and a chick.

A new home

The whole group held an informal debriefing over breakfast. Wednesday was an unusually rough night; hens had warned other hens and the teams found themselves on a lot of fruitless runs.

As the crew went to bed, one employee drove the chickens more than 250 miles to El Dorado Springs, Mo.

The chickens arrived just after 11 a.m. in Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie, where they were fitted with new tracking collars and driven to the release site.

Observers hid in blinds as the lid to the long wooden box opened.

The first hen poked out her head. She took a few steps, surveyed the landscape, neck stretched out.

Then she flew off, and soon the six had vanished.

Roosters caught in the spring have already settled in the area, awaiting the hens. But spring was not the best time to move the hens.

Late July is ideal to transplant females; their chicks are old enough to travel, but young enough that they can't make it all the way back to Kansas. So the half-grown offspring stay with the hens, and by the time those chicks are adults, they're settled enough to remain permanently.

Conservation Department workers hope that by the end of the $15,000-to-$18,000 project's five years, the chickens will have established a comfortable foothold in the state.

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