WEST OF GRAND FORKS — The sun is barely tickling the horizon, but the prairie already is alive with sound on this crisp April morning.
Meadowlarks are in full voice, as are all manner of ducks, geese and gulls; with just a skiff of wind, sound travels a long way on mornings such as this.
The sounds are glorious, to be sure, but they aren’t the main reason Susan Ellis-Felege and Ean Malchow are driving the backroads of Grand Forks County at daybreak. An associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of North Dakota, Ellis-Felege and Malchow, a senior Fish and Wildlife Biology major, are counting and listening for prairie grouse.
Sharp-tailed grouse are most abundant, but prairie chickens are the priority for their keen eyes and ears.
And these days, prairie chicken numbers in Grand Forks County are dwindling.
From a peak of more than 300 males in the early 2000s, prairie chickens in the county have declined to about 25 males, which gather on mating grounds called leks and produce an eerie “booming” sound by inflating air sacs on their necks to attract a mate.
For the first time this spring, Ellis-Felege and three of her students are overseeing the prairie grouse survey in Grand Forks County under a contract with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Working in two crews, they’ve found three pure prairie chicken booming grounds, Ellis-Felege says; sharptails dominate the other leks on their survey route.
Senior Allicyn Nelson and junior Grant Kapaun also assist with the survey. The Game and Fish Department provides one vehicle for the crew and UND provides the other.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out exactly how many prairie chickens are left in the county,” Ellis-Felege said. “We want to make sure we get all the males on these leks to know how many there really are.”
That’s no small challenge in the grassland areas along their route, which includes more than 40 survey points. The goal is to hit every point a minimum of twice but ideally three times, Ellis-Felege says.
The survey began April 1 and continues through May 15.
“Protocol says you’re supposed to try to do as much as you can from the vehicle without flushing them,” she said. “It’s impossible to do. They aren’t right next to the road, and there’s actually a fair bit of cover in the areas where the chickens still exist that makes it fairly difficult to see.”
The prairie chickens that remain west of Grand Forks are remnants of an intensive translocation effort in the 1990s to re-establish the birds in Grand Forks County, where the grouse had all but disappeared.
Erik Fritzell, a retired wildlife biologist and professor, recalls counting chickens in 1966 and 1967 as a UND student; the census was his first real biology job.
There weren’t many prairie chickens left even in those days, Fritzell said.
Then, as part of a project that included the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Prairie Chicken Society and the Grand Forks County Wildlife Federation, partners from 1992 to 1998 released 357 prairie chickens on grasslands west of Manvel.
Project organizers used prairie chickens from Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska for the releases.
Historically, the Game and Fish Department contracted with Wisconsin prairie chicken researcher John Toepfer to conduct the Grand Forks County survey work after the translocation project began. The birds did well until about 2004, said Gary Huschle, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who assisted with the initial releases and ran the survey route for Toepfer for more than a decade until Toepfer’s death in October 2018.
The population peaked in 2004 at 330 males on their booming grounds, Huschle said. Then, the numbers started going south and kept dropping. Game and Fish offered a prairie chicken season from 2004 through 2009, issuing a limited number of permits by lottery, but discontinued the season in 2010.
Last spring, his final year of running the survey, Huschle said he counted only nine prairie chicken males on one pure booming ground north of U.S. Highway 2 and four single males displaying with sharptails on their dancing ground leks.
“Toepfer had some thoughts about sharptails displacing chickens,” Huschle said. “And maybe that’s true up north here because that doesn’t seem to happen in Nebraska or western South Dakota, where both species seem to coexist.
“That might be some of what’s going on is sharptails being more aggressive or more successful.”
Difficult to explain
Sharptail numbers in the county have fallen “some” since 2008, as acreage enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program declines, Huschle says, but prairie chicken losses have been much more extensive.
“The sharptail decline looks much more proportional to the amount of CRP that’s been taken out, whereas the chickens have just plummeted down next to zero,” Huschle said. “You would have expected there would be some decline with the removal of CRP, just like the sharptails have, and it’s gone so much below; there must be something else going on.”
Both species should be susceptible to diseases such as West Nile virus, so that doesn’t add up as a theory, either, Huschle says.
“I really don’t have a good guess,” he said.
Habitat changes resulting in mixed grass prairie replacing tallgrass prairie seem to favor sharptails, said Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson.
Sharptails also do better in the fragmented habitat of Grand Forks County and the Sheyenne National Grasslands, home of North Dakota’s other remaining prairie chicken population, Kolar said.
“Sharp-tailed grouse have the advantage and outcompete and take over their display grounds,” he said. “So, many of the booming grounds have slowly converted to sharp-tailed grouse leks. That’s what we’re seeing a lot of — those and occasionally a hybrid.”
Hybrids — a cross between chickens and sharptails — are difficult to determine unless they’re actually booming, Ellis-Felege says; or trying to boom.
“Usually, they look like a mixed-up thing that’s both trying to boom and dance — really confused,” she said. “They’re the most awkward one on the dance floor, if that makes sense.”
Whether the prairie chickens in Grand Forks County eventually disappear or survive at low abundance remains to be seen. Game and Fish remains committed to maintaining prairie chickens in the county, but future translocations are unlikely, Kolar says.
“We have some tools for habitat management, but without being able to incentivize large-scale tallgrass prairie restoration, the decision to put more birds out there isn’t a viable solution,” Kolar said.