Playing Chicken

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

Russ Seward gets up with the prairie chickens. So does Carol Twiss.

In fact, so many people in eastern Yuma County wake with the birdies that the local historical society has printed buttons featuring a picture of the prairie chicken and the slogan "I got up with the prairie chickens."

Of course, people in Yuma County are "used to getting up early," Seward points out, since most of them live on farms or ranches or come from agricultural backgrounds. In late March and early April, though, these locals are joined in the pre-dawn cold by bird-watchers from around the world, who flock to eastern Colorado to witness one of the most bizarre mating rituals in the avian arena.

Danny Hellman

The dance begins at about 4 a.m., in any kind of weather, as the male chickens gather in groups of about twenty on grassy fields called "leks." Hopping, scampering and sprinting over the leks, each bird carves out a small territory by facing off against his rivals, spinning in circles and stamping his feet. Then the birds lower their heads, puff out the bright-orange air sacs on either side of their necks, and make a sound like someone blowing across the top of a Coke bottle. The noise is known as "booming," and the lady chickens who arrive later find it irresistible.

So do the tourists.

"People love to go out and watch them," says Twiss, who has been organizing bird-watching trips for the East Yuma County Historical Society for eight years. "It's just been kind of a thing around here. I can't tell you why people think so much of them. Somehow they just kind of grow on you. I guess it's just because we like them."

Which is a good thing for the little birds, because without the affection of local farmers and ranchers, there might not be any prairie chickens left in eastern Colorado.

The plains were full of prairie chickens back when Native Americans called the birds "sandhill dancers" and incorporated their dance into tribal rituals. And the bird population increased dramatically as the eastern prairie was cultivated; although they thrive in their native tallgrass, the birds do even better when the tallgrass is mixed with cropland. Eventually, however, that balance eroded as more and more land was farmed. Add to that the effects of drought and hunting, and the number of prairie chickens dropped to a low of about 300 in 1937, the year that hunting the birds was made illegal in Colorado.

By 1973, there were still only about 600 of the birds in Colorado, and the state listed the greater prairie chicken -- as distinguished from the lesser prairie chicken, a southwestern Colorado bird -- as an endangered species. Eight years later, the state Division of Wildlife embarked on a serious bid to restore the population to a healthy number. Working with Yuma County landowners, the DOW trapped prairie chickens and then released them on private properties, where the birds had the best chance of survival.

In 1993 the birds were upgraded to the state's "threatened" category, and in 1998 they were delisted entirely, becoming a species that was merely of "special concern." By the DOW's count, there may now be as many as 10,000 to 12,000 of the birds in Colorado.

The state's effort to save the chickens has been characterized as a huge success, and when DOW biologists talk about it, they are careful to credit the residents of Yuma County. "What we continue to stress is that the landowners did a heck of a job recovering these birds," says Ed Gorman, a wildlife biologist who works out of Sterling. "Their efforts in creating and improving habitat for the greater prairie chicken during the past decade have allowed the birds to make such a great comeback."

The people of Yuma County and the tiny town of Wray, where the county's historical society is based, take real pride in this accomplishment. "We started way back in 1981, when there wasn't hardly any prairie chickens here, working with DOW," says Seward, who runs the Kitzmiller Grazing Association, a large ranch owned by several locals. "It was good to see the chickens come back. It was a big community effort."

Which makes it all the stranger that Colorado is now allowing people to hunt prairie chickens for the first time in 63 years.

Last spring, when the DOW announced that it would offer 300 prairie-chicken-hunting permits on a three-year, experimental basis, the announcement got the same reaction in Yuma County as a wolf would get if he sneaked into a henhouse: It ruffled some feathers.

"Not many people like it," Twiss says. "It doesn't do anything for me to think about people shooting them. The only consolation is that so many of them die in the winter anyway."

Because Seward had led the landowners in helping to restore the chickens -- the DOW's specially outfitted trailer that converts into a bird-watching blind for tourists is on his ranch -- he also led the protest against hunting. "I had the first meeting out here when this first got pushed through," he says.

As a compromise, the state made chicken hunting very difficult. Since the birds can be hunted only in Yuma County and on private property, would-be hunters had to get permission to hunt from a landowner before they could even apply for a permit. And even after they got that permit, they were allowed to take only two birds each season and were required to give a wing from each one to the DOW so that the agency could determine the bird's age.

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.

"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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