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The Rise and Demise of Prairie Chickens

9/19/2014:

Most modern-day people have never seen a prairie chicken, but there was a time, long ago, when prairie chickens thrived on North Dakota’s grasslands.

Shooting prairie chickens was one of the premiere outdoor activities for hunters from the 1880s through the early 1900s. It was not always so, for when the great buffalo herds roamed through Dakota, the buffalo ate too much of the grass, and prairie chickens could not thrive. All that changed as the buffalo were wiped out in the 1870s and the last great herd was killed in 1883.

When farmers came, they planted wheat and small grains. Prairie chickens followed close after, nesting in the remaining grasslands and feeding in adjacent wheat fields. Prairie chickens proliferated as farmers killed foxes, owls, and hawks, their natural predators.

“North Dakota is a wonderful place for prairie chickens,” said an expert hunter in 1883, “they live in the wheat fields, where they breed, and No. 1 hard [wheat] agrees with them.”

As farmers tilled homesteads in western Dakota, prairie chickens prospered in these “newer agricultural” areas. After August wheat harvests, the stubble-fields were “alive with prairie chickens” and the game-birds were said to be “as thick as mosquitoes.” In the best years, a hunter could “go into the fields and shoot his birds as he might do in a farmyard.”

Newspapers referred to the “festive prairie chicken,” as the feathered quarry became the “dainty dish” for great feasts. Eventually, the Game and Fish Department limited hunters to 25 birds per day, with a hunting season from August 20th to December 1st.

Sadly, over-harvesting made the birds scarce, and hunters in the 1890s generally needed a bird-dog to find them. When cropland replaced more grasslands, the prairie-chicken population dropped even further.

On this date, in 1909, the Grand Forks Herald reported that prairie-chicken hunting near Towner was “better than in any other part of the state,” but bird-numbers were still very low, and it was clear that North Dakota would have to provide further protection for the species to avoid its extinction.

To improve hunting, the state Game and Fish Department began importing ring-neck pheasants and Hungarian partridges – and those birds largely replaced prairie chickens. Hunting season for prairie-chickens halted after 1945.

Thus, a small population survived, and today the “festive prairie chicken” may still be seen in grassy fringes near Grand Forks and in the Sheyenne National Grasslands by Wahpeton.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Towner,” Grand Forks Herald , September 19, 1909, p. 4.

“North Dakota Game,” Minneapolis Tribune , March 26, 1883, p. 1.

“Chickens Are Scarce,” Fargo Forum , September 16, 1909, p. 7.

“New Game Birds For North Dakota,” Grand Forks Herald , September 24, 1909, p. 10.

“Returning Nimrods,” Grand Forks Herald , September 6, 1896, p. 8.

“Now the Nimrods,” Grand Forks Herald , September 2, 1896, p. 4.

“A Day of Feasting,” Grand Forks Herald , November 30, 1894, p. 5.

“Fish And Game Laws,” Grand Forks Herald , October 28, 1893, p. 3.

“Wild Fowl In The Northwest,” New York Times , September 2, 1900, p. 14.

“Chicken Shooting,” Minneapolis Tribune , August 20, 1895, p. 2.

Greg Breining, “A Home to Roam,” Minnesota Conservation Volunteer , November-December 2001, "http://www.dnr.state.mn.us" www.dnr.state.mn.us , accessed on July 18, 2003.

“Bringing Back the Game: Hunting and Game Conservation in North Dakota- Pheasants and Prairie Chickens,” "http://history.nd.gov/textbook/unit7_prettygood/unit7_6_pheasants.html" http://history.nd.gov/textbook/unit7_prettygood/unit7_6_pheasants.html , accessed on August 16, 2014.