APPLETON -- Ralph Perry had to wait more than half a century for what he saw again last week.
With the opening of seven lids, prairie chickens burst from wooden boxes and winged their way lickety-split over a grass pasture.
Perry, 81, of Appleton, hasn't seen the flash of flushed prairie chickens over the Upper Minnesota River Valley landscape since the last of the birds disappeared from here in the 1940s.
The seven new arrivals came from Twin Valley. All of them wear small radio collars that will allow them to be tracked in the months ahead.
They had been captured in the wild the night before by John Toepfer, a visiting professor at St. Cloud State University with a doctorate in wildlife. Toepfer is leading a multiyear project aimed at reintroducing the prairie chickens to their native grounds in the Upper Minnesota River Valley.
Toepfer calls the project an experiment, and it's one with important implications for the future of the birds. If the birds can re-establish themselves here and increase their numbers, they can expand their range to reach existing prairie chicken populations in northwestern Minnesota and the neighboring Dakotas.
The connections could help ensure the genetic intermixing needed to keep the prairie chicken population healthy, according to Toepfer.
So far, the results of Toepfer's experiment are encouraging, said Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area. Trauba helped find four sites in the Upper Minnesota River Valley where 52 prairie chickens were released last year.
This spring, Trauba took cover in the early morning hours to witness the colorful and noisy courtship rituals that take place on what are known as prairie chicken "booming grounds." The birds established two booming grounds in the Upper Minnesota River Valley: One is on the Chippewa Prairie complex and the other on the Plover Prairie complex.
The two sites give Trauba and others hope for the bird's future in the area.
At least one nest is known to have resulted and produced chicks, Toepfer said.
This year Toepfer released more than 60 birds in the Upper Minnesota River Valley. Two new sites -- the Sleeping Bison and Victory Prairie areas -- have been added to the original release sites.
This year's mix of birds includes more hens, and even some hens with chicks, said John Wollenberg, assistant manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area.
Last year, most of the released birds were males, he said. The males establish the booming grounds that give the birds their home territory, he explained.
"They never move very far away from it," he said.
That makes it difficult to persuade prairie chickens to take up a new address, according to Toepfer. The birds are deliberately transplanted at this time of the year when they are molting. Otherwise, they are likely to migrate back toward their original grounds, he explained.
Until the 1940s, the Upper Minnesota River Valley was very much a part of the prairie chickens' original grounds. They disappeared as people altered the landscape.
The open grasslands the birds needed shrunk to isolated parcels. Pheasants arrived as competitors. Fire suppression allowed trees to invade the open prairie. The trees still provide an unfair advantage to the prairie chicken's main predators -- perching raptors such as horned owls and red-tailed hawks.
Trauba said the success of reintroducing prairie chickens will depend on returning the grasslands to their original condition and giving prairie chickens an open horizon. He is working with cooperating farmers and the state, private and federal entities that manage the wild lands where the birds have been released to remove trees and other possible perches for the predators.
Restoring these grasslands to their natural condition will benefit more than the prairie chickens, according to Trauba. Other wildlife, including pheasants and waterfowl, will gain as well.
Trauba is optimistic. The Upper Minnesota River Valley is currently blessed with the grasslands needed to give the prairie chickens a second chance, he said. No less important, people seem to be supportive of the effort to reintroduce the bird.
"It's the number one question I hear," he said. "How are the prairie chickens doing?"
It's a question that Toepfer continues to ask, too. Along with re-establishing the bird's range, he's heading a long-term study on them. It will provide baseline information on the bird's condition. The information -- on everything from disease to genetics -- could help us ensure the bird's ongoing survival before a crisis calls us to action, he said.
A $60,000 grant from the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources made possible the first two years of the prairie restoration project. Trauba is now working to obtain a mix of funding from state and federal entities and private conservation groups to continue the experiment for the next two years. Another two years is needed at a minimum to give the birds a true second chance, according to Toepfer.
Finding funds to support non-game studies and projects can be difficult. Toepfer said one of the main questions surrounding the prairie chicken's return is the relationship with the more aggressive pheasant. The two species can coexist, but much more must be learned.
Toepfer said he has a graduate student anxious to study the interrelationship between the two species, but funding is needed first.
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