Greater Prairie Chicken Trans-location: Conservation in Action!

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Greater Prairie Chicken Trans-location: Conservation in Action!


Greater Prairie Chicken: Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Blank Park Zoo Partnership
by Kevin Drees, Director of Animal Care and Conservation

Because of the Blank Park Zoo’s partnership with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), I and six other Zoo staff recently had the opportunity to spend three days assisting with the trapping and translocation of greater prairie chickens from western Nebraska to southern Iowa and northern Missouri – conservation in action!

Kevin Drees, Blank Park Zoo's Director of Animal Care and Conservation

This was part of a multiple-year program to support the disappearing wild prairie chicken population still remaining around Kellerton, Iowa, with the goal that this unique “symbol of the prairie” could become self-sustaining. The species was once found across the state, but was extinct at the turn of the century due to land-use and habitat change, along with over-hunting. In the 1980s, the IDNR translocated hundreds of birds to Iowa, but by 2010 it was estimated that less than 30 remained. 
I traveled to Imperial, Nebraska (8.5 hour drive from Des Moines) where the IDNR had received permission to capture 50 male and 50 female GP chickens from leks on private ranchlands. 

The male bird is known for its unusual booming and dancing breeding display that it performs on these areas called leks.

Males dancing on the lek with the hens.

We had two weeks to capture and bring the birds back to the state-owned Kellerton Grassland Bird conservation Area (1,600 acres of core habitat surrounded by privately owned suitable GP chicken habitat, total nearly 70,000 acres). To better ensure survival, the birds that are captured each morning are released within 24 hours.

Our day started at 4:30am, with IDNR staff dividing up into teams and heading out to the leks with chicken wire star-shaped pens that would trap unsuspecting birds as they displayed to each other. We would set the traps before daylight, then wait for sunrise in either a turkey blind or a pick-up truck.


While observing with binoculars, after about an hour and a half we would remove birds from the wire cages and place them in small, dark, soft cages (to prevent injury to the birds) for transport back to town. The state veterinarian and staff would draw blood for testing and band them, and they were off to their new home, hopefully before sunset!

Getting birds ready for transport

When we returned from the trip, we took the birds from that morning (one male and seven females) to the Dunn Ranch just across the border in Missouri and watched as the birds were fitted with GPS monitoring devices. They were released onto a lek with a herd of bison in the background!

The Zoo’s contribution this year went to the purchase of the GPS units and to help cover the expenses of the translocation. Jen Vogel, an Iowa State University graduate student, is monitoring the information received from the GPS data. This is the first time greater prairie chickens coming to Iowa were fitted with these…and there are some surprises already!


 Hen with GPS transmitter


Some of the birds have traveled 50 miles and have been in 10 counties in Iowa and 10 in Missouri! It is hoped we will gain information on their movements and survivability and will be able to increase the success of the project. The IDNR does have permission to move 100 birds in 2014 and 2015, provided the data shows success.

This “in the wild” conservation project is one way that the Blank Park Zoo can be intimately involved in assisting wildlife, part of the mission of a modern zoo.

05/20/2013 4:42 PM |Add a comment
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