Iowa DNR Traps Nebraska Prairie Chickens


Conservationists from Iowa say it's taken the cooperation of wildlife groups from their state, from Nebraska state officials, and from Garfield and Wheeler County landowners to make their prairie chicken translocation project a success this year.

For the Iowa Department of Natural Resources catching prairie chickens starts well before dawn, because when the sun rises, the chicken mating ground -- called a lek -- is a busy place.

"People call what the chickens do ‘booming,' they make several different noises, anything from a cackle to a whoop to their booming," says Iowa DNR Natural Resources Technician Andy Kellner.

Biologists place walk-in traps made mostly of chicken wire around the lek, then wait for the chickens to wander inside.

Captured birds are taken from the Sandhills to Iowa where the DNR aims to introduce their new genetics into the small population they re-established about thirty years ago after prairie chickens were wiped out there.

"Because there's not a lot of birds in the area, there's not thousands, they're not interbreeding, they're inbreeding," says Chad Paup, Iowa DNR Wildlife Biologist.

Kellner says it's taken them two weeks to trap around 90 birds, close to their goal of 100.

"Everybody has a little bit different style that they like to use, and depending on the birds that given morning, [the traps] either will or won't work, a lot of it comes down to the birds and just timing and luck," he says.

That particular morning was successful at a Garfield County lek. A hen wandered into the trap, becoming Hen No. 224, banded so the DNR can monitor her progress. Before being transported, she has to be checked out by state and federal vets.

"We're just kind of looking at them, making sure there's no damage, put a little antiseptic on them if they've got a little fray or injury or something like that," says Paup.

No. 224 and eight others from that morning's catch are loaded, and driven six hours to their new home at the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area in southern Iowa.

Prairie chickens only live two to four years, so biologists say the chicks they'll have are more important than how many adults are taken from Nebraska.

"If we continue with our good habitat, have some decent weather for nesting and broodering, then our population will grow," says Paup. "It's not that we're translocating birds to make the population grow by adding numbers to it."

One reason the DNR wants to keep their population thriving is for Iowans and for visitors.

"If we can keep those native birds in a small residual habitat so that other people can see them and enjoy them, then that's our ultimate goal," says Paup.

But the prairie chicken is important to other animals and the environment as well.

"They are what you would call an umbrella species, the work we do for prairie chickens benefits a lot of other species out on the ground, a lot of other bird species and mammal species and other things," says Kellner.

This is the third year of the project. Last year and the first test year were conducted in the Imperial area. The DNR says they didn't want to take more birds from that region because of the drought, and they work closely with Nebraska Game and Parks to make sure they don't take too many birds from any one lek or area.