The US Forest Service, Comanche National Grassland will be closing the Lesser Prairie-Chicken viewing Area during March through May, 2008. The viewing area is typically open for the public to watch the mating dances of the male prairie chicken on the lek each spring. Because the number of Lesser Prairie-Chickens was down significantly during last years mating season, the decision was made to temporarily close the site. The winter storm of 2006 likely caused the estimated 50% drop in prairie-chicken numbers from the year before on the Comanche National Grassland. The US Forest Service will not be allowing the public, including bird tour groups, to utilize the site until bird numbers have increased. The area of closure is along FS Road 545, between County Road C through G, approximately 12 miles east of Campo, CO. The Cimarron National Grassland near Elkhart, KS plans to have two Lesser Prairie-Chicken Viewing Areas open to the public where more birds survived the winter storm.
In Colorado Lesser Prairie Chickens are restricted to the far southeastern corner of the state in Baca and Prowers Counties. In the 1800s and early 1900s, these birds were also found in Cheyenne, Kiowa, Bent and Lincoln Counties. Since then population numbers have dropped dramatically and they are now considered a threatened species in Colorado. Prior to the conversion of native grass to crop land, Prairie Chickens were a fairly common sight, often seen in flocks of over 1000 birds. When the wide expanse of native prairie was plowed under, the decline of this "Prairie Hen" followed. Although habitat destruction was the primary culprit, market hunting and overgrazing by cattle contributed to their decline. The Lesser Prairie Chicken is dependent on the sand sage-grassland community. This mixed vegetation type of mid- and tall grasses interspersed with shrubs and yucca provides their food, cover and nesting requirements. The largest portion of birds in Colorado live on the Comanche National Grassland which is administered by the U.S. Forest Service in Baca County. These public land acres have played a key role in stabilizing the current population.
During the spring, Lesser Prairie Chicken males will gather at leks (display grounds, dancing grounds) to perform their courtship ritual. Lek sites are usually located on a high spot of ground or ridge that is sparsely vegetated. This allows the birds an unobstructed area to display for females. Leks are used by the birds year after year. Adult male Prairie Chickens usually return to the same lek ever spring. Courtship displays usually begin in mid-March and last into early June. The peak display period is from mid-April to mid-May. Some leks have as many as 40 males on them.
During courtship, makes establish territories on the lek. Dominant males claim and defend territories in the center of the lek and preform most of the mating with the hens. When not engaged in a territorial dispute, the male Prairie Chicken is trying to attract a hen by his displays. He will lean forward, raising the pinnae (ears) on his neck and inhale air to inflate the reddish-purple sacks on his neck. The wings are dropped and the tail feathers fanned out. In this posture, the male emits a "booming" sound while strutting around his territory. On a calm day, this characteristic booming may be heard a mile away. Other behaviors observed on the lek include aerial leaps and cackling by the males.
Anyone wishing to visit the display ground should contact either the U.S. Forest Service, Comanche National Grassland, PO Box 127, 27162 Highway 287, Springfield, CO, 81072, (719-523-6591) or Andy Hough, District Wildlife Manager, Las Animas, CO., 81054, (719-523-4151). Make arrangements for your visit as far in advance as possible, as only a limited number of vehicles and people can be accommodated at the ground in one day.
A blind will be set up at the display ground which can accommodate up to three people. A key to this blind can be obtained from the Forest Service office weekdays and from Andy Hough on the weekend. The key will be issued on a first come first serve basis.
Viewing area suggestions:
In the town of Campo, turn east on 4th Ave. which becomes County Rd. J. for 8 miles. Turn right on Rd. 36 and drive 2 miles south. Turn left and drive 4 miles east on Rd. G. Turn right through gate marked "Pasture 1Ae". It is a wire fence just before the rock bridge (if you drive over the bridge, you have gone too far). Drive approximately 1.3 miles south. Turn right and follow tire tracks approximately 80-100 feet to parking area.