Greater Prairie Chicken Appears On Comeback Trail In Illinois

ould have accounted for the increased hatching rates in recent years.

"These genetic findings are important, because no other studies have been able to show precisely what was lost, leaving alternative possible interpretations such as they were always depauperate [lacking] in genetic variation. These alleles are merely markers of overall genetic diversity and the alleles lost over time. But it can be implied that a loss in genetic variation was a factor because the introduction of new genetic material by these outside birds bolstered fitness back to original levels," Paige said.

Greater prairie chickens once occupied the prairies from Canada to Texas. They are considered virtually extinct in Canada; their southern cousin, the Attwater prairie chicken, is endangered on the Texas coastal prairie. An eastern relative, the Heath Hen, has been extinct since 1931. The current range of the greater prairie chicken is from northwestern Minnesota south to northeastern Oklahoma, and from southeastern Illinois to northeastern Colorado.

Efforts to save the Illinois population must continue, the researchers say. "Illinois is the prairie state; 60 percent was once prairie," Westemeier said. "We've lost all that. I guess it's a matter of atonement that we owe something to the prairie chicken. This bird probably numbered in the millions in the 1800s. It fed the early settlers. The species epitomizes the characteristics of the state. Besides, efforts to preserve prairie chickens benefit a wide array of other endangered, threatened and watch-list species in the state."

The prairie chickens' recovery, Brawn said, may be temporary, and it may be necessary to bring in more birds in several years to revitalize the population's diversity. A good sign, he added, is that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been protecting and developing grasslands to expand the Prairie Ridge park.

"I think the prognosis is guardedly optimistic," Brawn said. "Thi

Contact: Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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