ALTAMONT — After one year of work, Bob Gillespie, a natural resources coordinator with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said the efforts to reintroduce the highly endangered prairie chicken back to Illinois is just beginning.
“This is an iconic grassland animal,” he said during a presentation at Ballard Nature Center Thursday. “When you think about the prairie state, this is one of the animals that is considered most endangered. It is well known to be very imperiled in the state and has been well known to be imperiled for a very long time.”
Gillespie is one of the pivotal individuals in bringing the prairie chickens, which had been transplanted from their native grasslands in Illinois to Kansas, several years ago back to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County. However, the bird has been endangered for years because of heavy hunting in the 19th century. The grouse’s status in Illinois began to come to the attention of researchers as early as the 1940s and initial work on a sanctuary for the birds, which would become Prairie Ridge, began in 1961.
Gillespie began transporting the animals from Kansas to Prairie Ridge in March, taking nearly 90 birds on the first trip. However, the program came under scrutiny in May as the state legislature engaged in a 10-hour budget debate over the Illinois Department of Transportation’s air fleet being used in the transportation of the animals from Kansas to Illinois.
Gillespie said charting the 12 flights between Kansas and Effingham at the cost of just over $7,000 was a necessary step, adding it was much cheaper than transporting the prairie chickens by vehicle. It also is much safer, he said, as a four-hour plane ride — versus a 10-hour car ride — minimizes the amount of time the chickens are penned.
“The airlift was a very important part of the recovery effort,” he said. “It’s quick and it’s fast. We catch the birds, and we get them here in the same day. The use of aircraft was pivotal to the survival of the birds.”
Despite the necessity of using the state’s fleet, Gillespie said he was not surprised to see the issue become a political lightning rod during the heated, summer budget debates. He believes politicians attacked the use of the IDOT fleet, as well as the general idea of transporting animals by plane, because the science behind animal relocation is so new and novel.
“When you’re dealing with very endangered organisms, you have to take drastic measures at times to keep them in existence,” he said. “In this situation, we’re dealing with a very, very imperiled organism which requires very particular handling. When you’re bringing an organism back from a very imperiled status, it can be costly.”
Even with those costs, Gillespie said researchers at Prairie Ridge are gathering new data about the nesting and brood patterns of the prairie chicken. They’ve learned more about the birds’ preferences for areas filled with high weeds and other areas that offer the birds cover by placing radio tracking on the birds.
Still, Gillespie said he wants to be able to make two additional trips to Kansas to trap about 200 more prairie chickens for transport back to Prairie Ridge in time for their April breeding period. He said even with more scrutiny from the state on the program, those with a focus on protecting wildlife and preserving endangered species are going to have to find a way to continue to protect an animal still teetering on the brink of extinction.
“We’re going to have to find a way to make it work,” he said. “We have to use aircraft to transport the animals. Otherwise, we have much less success as far as survival goes. We’ve got to do it.”