State conservationists scour the Kansas boondocks, aiming to repopulate Missouri with horny prairie chickens

There are very few reasons any human being would want to be standing out on the Kansas prairie at five-thirty in the morning. Here's one, courtesy of Max Alleger:

"If I were getting lucky once a year, I'd come out, too."

Alleger isn't the one getting lucky here, though — at least not in that particular way. The lucky individuals are a handful of male prairie chickens — known as cocks — who should be sauntering across this patch of nowhere in about half an hour to pick up some prairie hens and hustle them into a nearby patch of tall grass for roughly four seconds of what passes for prairie-chicken conjugal bliss.

For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Earl Richardson
For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Box traps are built into a chicken-wire maze. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Earl Richardson
Box traps are built into a chicken-wire maze. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.

By the light of the headlamps of two pickup trucks, Alleger, Dennis Browning, John Murphy and Ryan Jones clumsily set up a pair of duck blinds twenty feet from where they have reason to believe the prairie-chicken bacchanal will transpire. The canvas flaps in the wind, and the men fumble for stakes to keep their blinds from blowing away.

Please don't get the wrong impression. These men aren't depraved voyeurs. They work for the Missouri Department of Conservation. They're here on state business, in the name of science and prairie preservation.

They're conservationist voyeurs.

And, if all goes according to plan, prairie-chicken rustlers.

Just beyond the headlamps' glare, a complicated maze constructed of chicken wire sprawls 100 feet along the grass. The four men spent two hours yesterday setting it up across the mating area, which is known as a lek or booming ground. This morning each prairie cock, acting on the biological imperative impulse in his grape-size brain, will waddle onto the lek with the hope of attracting a hen or two and announce his presence with the prairie chicken's distinctive mating call: the boom. Intent upon their quest, the birds will wander into the maze and, eventually, into one of the box traps the conservation men have cleverly concealed therein.

Later this afternoon the men hope to pack the captured prairie chickens in brightly colored carriers normally used for transporting guinea pigs and drive them back to Missouri. They'll release the cocks into Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie, a conservation area just outside El Dorado Springs, about a hundred miles southeast of Kansas City, and hope they'll get lucky again — and avoid prairie-chicken hazards like freezing to death or getting carried off by a hungry hawk.

Though it's tempting to imagine that this foursome is operating a covert prairie chicken-rustling ring, the men are here in the Kansas flint hills with permission from the ranchers who own this pastureland. Last week, after setting up a base of operations at a Best Western in Salina, a half-hour drive away, they scanned pastures from trucks and even a helicopter, searching for nesting prairie hens or, at the very least, prairie chicken feathers and prairie-chicken shit — any signs of prairie-chicken gathering spots.

By six o'clock the chicken hunters have crawled inside their duck blinds. It's still full dark, apart from the stars above and a few twinkling lights from Minneapolis, the nearest town.

"I like it here, because cows outnumber people," says Alleger, a hearty, good-natured man of 45 who has been the state's Prairie Chicken Recovery leader since the project's inception five years ago. Every year he canvasses the department for volunteers to help with prairie-chicken capture, and every year he winds up with a waiting list. Like most who find their way into the Department of Conservation, Alleger grew up in the country, hunting and fishing. For a while he worked on the family farm in southwest Missouri, but farming didn't generate enough income so he had to, as he puts it, "fall back on my college education." He has been at the department for the past fifteen years, working on grasslands and prairies.

"I push a lot of paper," he says, summarizing the collective feelings of his conservation compadres. "I drive a lot of miles. I talk to a lot of groups. It's nice to get back into the field."

He'll be out here for the next three weeks: one week to catch cocks, a second to snare hens and a week in between to scout out more leks. Elsewhere, out on the prairie, seventeen other Missouri conservation workers at five other sites are doing the same thing. Over the course of their time here, they plan to visit 32 different booming grounds. When all is said and done, they will have captured 26 cocks and 52 hens. In doing so they will become increasingly sleep-deprived and, on occasion, hysterical.

Once upon a time, a third of Missouri (including what is now St. Louis) was prairie: endless grassland — and a rich ecosystem that encompassed more than 200 different plant and animal species. The roots of the grass and sparse trees extended deep into the earth, beneath a thick layer of sod that protected some of the richest soil in the world and kept it from blowing away or eroding into the Mississippi River. And when the prairie was thriving, it was home to hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens, more than anyone could even attempt to tally.

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