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Rolling Hills Zoo Participates in Greater Prairie Chicken Conservation Efforts

KSAL Staff - April 6, 2016 9:06 pm

photo courtesy Rolling Hills Zoo

Rolling Hills Zoo is actively participating in a project to help a native bird species recover from near extinction.

According to the zoo, the preservation of endangered species from around the world serves as Rolling Hills Zoo’s primary conservation focus, but they also participate in conservation efforts on a regional scale. Although the Zoo’s wildlife conservation is supported primarily through monetary contributions, when an opportunity arises where Zoo staff members can provide hands-on support, they jump at the chance.

Rolling Hills Zoo is currently serving as an examination and transition site for the recovery of the greater prairie chicken in Illinois. This translocation project is being conducted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Natural History Survey and the Illinois Audubon Society. This 3-year project has been developed for the recovery of the Illinois prairie chicken at the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area.

Like Kansas, Illinois is considered a prairie state. In the mid-1800s, booming mating calls rocked the Illinois prairie announcing that colorful greater prairie chickens were near and abundant. At that time the greater prairie chicken was estimated to have numbered in the millions in Illinois.

As pioneers moved west, the birds were hunted for food, fell to predators, and their habitats shrank. Even the birds’ declining genetic diversity brought them to near extinction.

In 1977, The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board declared the greater prairie chicken an endangered species is Illinois. To save the greater prairie chicken from extinction on the Illinois prairie, a three year project was developed to relocate 100 greater prairie chickens each year for three years for genetic and demographic rescue.

To achieve their mission, the State of Illinois entered into a three year contract with the State of Kansas. At the end of the project the coordinating agencies were hoping that a total of 300 greater prairie-chickens (150 males – 150 females) from Kansas would be released on various tracts at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, with an overall goal to increase the population to 500 birds in Illinois.

“By bringing in Kansas prairie chickens to breed with Illinois prairie chicken genetics, we are hoping to offset breeding and increase the genetic health of the species,” noted Bob Gillespie, Natural Resource Coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources – Plan for the Recover of the Greater Prairie Chicken, Heritage Division. “In doing so, we will capture no more than 20% of the birds from any one booming ground, and we won’t diminish the population below 10 birds.”

Once captured, the greater prairie chickens will be relocated to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area which covers 4,500 acres of land. This natural area is due east of Salina in Illinois. Because of the geographic location of this area, the birds will experience the same climate conditions, although a wetter terrain. In 2014, the first year of the program, the agencies involved collectively captured 91 prairie chickens. Due to unfavorable conditions in 2015, no capturing took place. And now in 2016, the group is well on their way to reaching their yearly goal with 50 males and 23 females captured to date. The program will continue until April 13 or until they capture the remaining 27 hens. By the end of this year’s capture, 25 staff members and volunteers from the various agencies will have worked the booming grounds of the Kansas’ greater prairie chickens, with 12 – 14 individuals working on any given day. Included in the group are retired employees from the Missouri Department of Conservation who are also lending their expertise.

“It has been wonderful working with our partners in Kansas – the Zoo, ranchers and farmers – on this translocation program,” shared Gillespie. “We cherish our birds and appreciate being able to do this in Kansas.”

Right now, the Kansas greater prairie chickens are in the breeding season where males are coming out to their booming sites. At these booming grounds males perform their mating displays in hopes of attracting females. The male greater prairie chickens will stay on this ground displaying for almost two months while the females arrive for breeding purposes. The breeding season usually begins starting in late March throughout April. Once the birds have been captured they are taken Rolling Hills Zoo’s veterinary hospital where the birds are weighed, measured and examined for overall health and parasites. A blood drawn is taken and loose feathers are collected for genetic testing. Each bird is tagged and half of the birds, both male and female, will be outfitted with a radio collar so that their habitats and behaviors can be tracked. The information collected will be used to further the population by bettering the habitat management techniques in Illinois.

After each bird’s individual data has been collected, they are taken to the airport where they will be flown out yet that day to Illinois. The next morning the birds will be released at an active booming site where they can mingle in with Illinois’ native greater prairie chickens.

Currently, greater prairie chickens are found in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin. Greater prairie chickens once occupied the prairies from Canada to Texas. They are considered virtually extinct in Canada; their southern cousin, the Attwater prairie chicken, is endangered on the Texas coastal prairie. An eastern relative, the Heath Hen, has been extinct since 1931.

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