Michael Pearce

Prairie chicken population holding its own in Kansas

Chris Tymeson made the eight-hour round-trip from Topeka to hunt lesser prairie chickens in Edwards County.
Chris Tymeson made the eight-hour round-trip from Topeka to hunt lesser prairie chickens in Edwards County. Michael Pearce

EDWARDS COUNTY — The first flock of lesser prairie chickens flushed near where Tom Turner parked his truck when we arrived Thursday morning. The last pair sailed from sight as we were leaving late that afternoon.

In the hours between, seldom did we hike more than a half-hour without being into birds.

Three big flocks flushed within a quarter-mile.

By mental tally, we walked-up about 150 lessers the closing day of their 2009 season.

Looks like somebody forgot to tell Kansas' lesser prairie chickens their population is in peril.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering placing lessers on their threatened and endangered species lists. They cite concerns the population is spriraling downward at alarming rates.

That may be true in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Habitat encroachment from agriculture, wind farms, power lines and the oil industry are blamed.

Thanks to habitat work, New Mexico is pretty positive about the future of their birds.

The news about Kansas' lessers has been predominantly good for the past decade.

Drought has caused a few population hiccups in traditional short grass prairie near the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers in southwest Kansas.

Jim Pitman, Wildlife and Parks small game program coordinator, is confident the area's birds are doing well overall.

Pitman is also optimistic about the sizable and growing populations between the Arkansas River and I-70 in west-central Kansas, an area where lessers were almost unheard of not that long ago.

Assorted biologists estimate the Kansas population to be close to 50,000 lessers after broods are raised in the summer. That's about 60 percent of the nation's lesser chickens.

Still, the feds could start listing proceedings this spring. As well as possibly restricting land use in prime habitat, a listing would probably end hunting for lesser prairie chickens.

Kansas is the only state with a season for hunting lesser prairie chickens.

Such a move won't save many birds. Pitman estimated the annual Kansas harvest to be fewer than 500 birds. That's about one percent of a population that may see a 50 percent overall annual mortality.

"Even if people really tried, there's no way you could hurt (lesser) prairie chickens by hunting them," Turner said Thursday morning. "It's not easy."

Since Kansas' best habitats are on private ranches, permission to hunt can be difficult.

That the late-November through Dec. 31 lesser prairie chicken season coincides with times when deer hunters are paying high dollar to access the same ranches adds to that problem.

And hunting lesser prairie chickens can be a strenuous exercise in futility, as hunters search for football-sized needles in haystacks that stretch for miles.

It's often like walking a moonscape of short but steep sandy hills that suck your boots and strain knees and ankles while cactus and dense thickets jab your legs.

There are no special landscape features to give hunters added hope.

"You walk one side of a sandhill and there are 50 chickens on the other side and you'll never know it," Turner said. "There's a lot of luck involved. All you can do is keep walking and walking."

Our hopes rose when the first flock of about 15 flushed where Turner had planned to park. By noon we'd seen at least 50, and the afternoon was even better.

After a flushless half-hour, we headed into a series of lowlands where lessers frequently flushed from the edges.

As they usually do, most of the birds flushed just out of range. Turner's 28 gauge dropped a gorgeous male lesser when a flock of about 12 flushed about as many yards away.

I muffed my best chance when I stopped shooting at a bird I thought was falling. It didn't.

Chris Tymeson of Topeka lacked the luck lesser prairie chicken hunters so need.

His shotgun malfunctioned when two birds offered easy shots. Later, he'd just emptied his gun at distant birds when a single flushed nearby.

We left hoping to give the great birds another try next year. Hopefully we'll get a chance.

Even if listed this year by the feds, Pitman said their standard process of gathering public opinion and making recovery plans should take long enough to grant Kansas at least one more season.

If so, hopefully next time Tymeson finds the luck needed to get his first bird.

If he doesn't succeed, it certainly won't be from a lack of lesser prairie chickens.

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