Playing Chicken

Colorado set its sights on saving the greater prairie chicken decades ago. So why is it firing at the birds now?

The DOW also agreed to include in the permit application a list of people who wouldn't allow hunting on their property and didn't want to be bothered by phone calls from hunters. The list wound up 107 names long.

"There is some contention with this issue, and we wanted to make sure the hunters who do it are extremely well behaved," says the DOW's Gorman. The hunters' shotgun and archery season ran from September 15 to 30, and the seven-week falconry season just ended October 31.

The DOW's decision to declare the birds fair game fit with the department's long-range goals to create more opportunities for small-game hunting, Gorman explains, and in this case, a small but persistent group of people wanted to hunt chickens. "People are extremely excited to be able to hunt this species," he adds. "And there is some value to saying that 25 years ago, this bird was at a population level that was very depressed, and now we have enough to hunt them. It says a lot about the recovery effort. It builds a lot of legitimacy into that.

Danny Hellman

"The hunting is not a biological issue," he continues. "It's a public-acceptance issue. When the landowners basically grabbed ahold of the prairie chickens and decided to make them come back, they became very protective. It's real hard for everyone to think of them as something we need to protect and then, just a few years later, to say the species is doing extremely well and offer an opportunity to hunt them."

This year the DOW issued only 47 permits to hunt prairie chickens, which means a maximum of 94 birds could be taken. "We're going to end up with a harvest of less than 25 chickens," predicts Gorman, who's still awaiting the final numbers. "They are an extremely wary bird. Hunters didn't have a hard time finding them; they had a hard time getting them."

But that doesn't make hunting any more appealing to Twiss, who's watched as prairie chickens -- live prairie chickens -- have grown into a real tourist draw.

"The first time, we had no idea if it would work or not," she says. "But this tour thing, if we really get it started, it would put Wray on the map." Tour packages, which can only be arranged through the historical society and routinely sell out, include one or two nights at a local hotel, a cookout, a presentation at the Wray Museum and a giant breakfast at Seward's Kitzmiller Ranch.

"We need something new and different here in Wray, you know," Twiss adds. "We watch the grass grow a lot."

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