MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- When the first white settlers rolled into Minnesota, they were delighted to discover flocks of tasty prairie chickens on the state's southern boundaries.
The prairie chickens likewise found the settlers' rudimentary agricultural practices to their liking, and the birds' population and range expanded. By 1900, they had spread over most of the state.
The birds became so plentiful that they were shot by the wagonload in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1923, hunters killed nearly 330,000 prairie chickens -- about the number of pheasants that modern hunters shoot each fall in the state.
''They used to talk about 10,000 men and dogs descending on Fergus Falls to hunt chickens on opening weekend,'' said Dave Trauba, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager at Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area.
''Trains left the Twin Cities full of chicken hunters,'' he said.
But as the patchwork of croplands, grasslands, pastures and wetlands was converted into large swaths of intensively farmed cropland, prairie chicken numbers plummeted. Minnesota's last hunting season was in 1942.
''It was such a big part of our outdoor heritage, and it just disappeared really in a blink of the eye,'' Trauba said.
Now, 60 years later, the DNR wants to reclaim that heritage and reinstate a very limited five-day prairie chicken hunting season in a small swath of northwestern Minnesota where about 3,000 birds still thrive. About 100 licenses would be issued through a lottery, much as wild turkey licenses are distributed now. Each hunter would be allowed to shoot two prairie chickens.
''They are a game bird, and we feel we have a population that can support a limited season,'' said Lloyd Knudson, DNR farmland wildlife program leader.
But the DNR also hopes a limited season could kindle broader interest in the bird -- a member of the grouse family -- and the grassland habitat that it needs to thrive.
''We started out with a pretty limited season on wild turkeys, and look how much interest we've generated,'' Knudson said.
The state launched its wild turkey hunting season in 1978 after reintroducing wild birds in the southeast. Fewer than 400 hunters killed 94 turkeys that first year. Now, 40,000 hunters apply for about 20,000 permits and shoot 5,000 to 6,000 turkeys each spring over much of southern Minnesota.
Knudson doesn't expect that kind of growth for prairie chickens because of the limited amount of grassland habitat that remains in the state. Until recently, the state's prairie chickens were found in only a narrow band in the northwest, where the hunting would occur.
But their numbers have slightly increased in recent years, Knudson said, because of the addition of more grassland, including private lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Also, beginning in 1999, the DNR and several other agencies and organizations began trapping prairie chickens from northwestern Minnesota and releasing them at several sites farther south in west-central Minnesota near Lac qui Parle in hopes of re-establishing birds in that region.
About 145 prairie chickens have been released, and Trauba said some have successfully reproduced. Besides the DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society are involved in the project. So far, the transplant efforts appear to be working.
''I'm optimistic at this point,'' Trauba said.
Officials plan to trap and release more prairie chickens for another three or four years in hopes of establishing the population.
One unknown is whether the prairie chickens and ringneck pheasants, which already thrive in the Lac qui Parle area, will co-exist. Pheasants tend to dominate and could negatively affect the fledgling prairie chicken population.
''We feel there is enough space on the landscape for these two species to co-exist,'' Trauba said. ''But if pheasants push them out, then that will be the case. We'll let nature take its course.''
The proposed hunting season in the northwest could be a significant step toward securing a future for prairie chickens in Minnesota.
''It can be biologically justified and at the same time we can build excitement for these birds and for the grasslands,'' Trauba said.
The DNR can offer a hunting season, but it needs legislative approval to restrict the number of hunters through a lottery, Knudson said. The prairie chicken population is too small to handle an unlimited number of hunters.
A bill giving the agency the legal authority it needs has been approved by the Senate but not by the House.
The issue hasn't been controversial, and DNR officials are cautiously optimistic that it will be approved.
''These birds are part of our heritage,'' Trauba said. ''They deserve a chance to come back.''
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