CHICAGO — It's pitch-black in Jasper County, Illinois — not yet 5 a.m. — and Bob Gillespie is running late.

Gillespie, a wildlife biologist at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area near Newton, opens a gate with a do not enter sign at the edge of a meadow and starts a wet slog across the uneven ground on his way to a patch of field that he has carefully prepared for the main event in his working year — the mating dance of the Illinois greater prairie chicken, one of the state's most endangered species.

He is practiced and sure-footed in the dark, hustling a little so that he can conceal himself in a blind before the birds arrive. He keeps time by the birdsong that rises up from the grasses all around him. "You can hear a little bit of winnowing snipe; bobwhite quail off in the distance, just starting," he says. "We've got a meadowlark singing already, so it won't be very long now."

Then, an otherworldly sound floats up from the darkened meadow, the lyrical "booming" springtime chorus of the male prairie chicken flock. Gillespie has heard the mating song hundreds of times, and yet, the moment still resonates with a sort of primeval wonder -- a flicker of what it means to be alive in the natural world.

"This is just a phenomenon of nature," says Gillespie. "This spring courtship is like nothing else, and it really represents the true prairie. If you think about it, it's a really important element of biodiversity for our state."

Yet, in spite of decades of conservation efforts, this unique species remains imperiled. This week, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a groundbreaking scientific study on biodiversity, which found that 1 million species worldwide are facing extinction. The loss of species, the report noted, is a threat to biodiversity that has direct implications for water quality, food security and, ultimately, human survival. "The numbers are so big," says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, chief program officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "that they sound a call for action throughout the world." That, she says, includes our state's 200-odd remaining prairie chickens.

"The story of the greater prairie chicken is the story of so many species," says Casey-Lefkowitz. "Their decline mirrors the decline of the prairie, and all the species that depend on it. There's an interconnectedness to the greater prairie chicken story."

The prairie itself is among the most endangered ecosystems, with an estimated 4 percent of tallgrass prairie habitat remaining nationwide, according to the Audubon Society. Prairie birds have shown the sharpest declines in population of any bird group in North America. The lives of prairie chickens are deeply intertwined with the life cycle of the grasslands -- the birth of their young, for instance, is timed to the annual prairie grasshopper bloom, a perfect source of nourishment. "Prairie provides everything a prairie chicken needs," says Gillespie, and it does the same for a range of other species, such as the ornate box turtle and the increasingly rare Henslow's sparrow.

Yet "when we look at what is needed," says Casey-Lefkowitz, "it is not too late to save species across the world, and we need to be sure that we are conserving and restoring species. There are all kinds of small-scale efforts that are emblematic of what we need to be doing."

In Illinois, two generations of the Gillespie family have thrown themselves into the effort to re-create grassland habitat and save the greater prairie chicken. Jim Gillespie, Bob's father, remembers growing up on the family farm near Newton, about 90 miles south of Champaign, close enough to the prairie chickens that "every once in awhile you'd be out in the car going to town, and prairie chickens would fly across the road."

Even then, the prairie chickens were long past their late 1800s heyday, when they numbered in the millions across Illinois and were harvested by the ton to be served up in restaurants in Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Their status as icons of the prairie was assured: Mark Twain immortalized "prairie hens from Illinois" on a list of his favorite foods; Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about them in "Little House on the Prairie;" Native American tribes such as the Blackfoot still perform ceremonial dances based on the prairie chicken mating dance.

By the time Jim Gillespie was in college studying wildlife management in the early 1970s, conservationists were already hard at work trying to save the remnant of that immense flock. He got a job working on a large-scale study of greater prairie chicken nesting behavior that documented the exact kinds of nesting materials and surrounding plants the birds preferred. That work proved to be a roadmap for his son, who works carefully to manage the Prairie Ridge grasslands to the precise height and composition that a nesting hen desires.

Jim worked for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and as a farmer, and pointed his son toward a love of nature. "I was brought up in a conservation mindset," says Bob, "and the prairie chickens were always interesting creatures. It just lined up that the sanctuary was here right out my back door."

Then, as now, the spring mating dance was a treat that most people weren't lucky enough to see. The prairie chicken, actually a kind of grouse, makes full use of its showy appearance, which for males comes complete with inflatable air sacs on the neck and a patterned tail that fans out for dancing. When hens visit the lek, or booming ground, where males have carefully staked out bedroom-sized territories determined by a series of sparring matches, "You see them stomping their feet, and you can even hear it," says Bob. "It's wonderful. They'll inflate their air sacs, bright orange, the color of the rising sun, and then they'll stand up some feathers on the back of their heads. They'll boom, and they'll cackle, and you'll also hear a whoop. That's a sound they make only for the hens."

The birds, a species that shared his native prairie, captured Bob's imagination. Summer breaks in high school found him working at Prairie Ridge, where he'd cut brush or run errands for park staff or, on better days, get a chance to help look for freshwater mussels or count prairie chickens. "I have a long, long history with this animal," he says.

In 2013, after grad school and a first job working in Missouri, Bob Gillespie returned home to work at Prairie Ridge once again. He arrived at a particularly dark time for the birds -- drought and a violent hailstorm had wreaked havoc on the population, decreasing their numbers to around 60 birds. "That was a very, very critical point, and we had to do something quickly," he says.

The recovery effort turned to a translocation strategy, which calls for birds from a more robust prairie chicken population in another state — in this case, Kansas — to be captured and released in the Prairie Ridge preserve, the bird's only remaining habitat in Illinois. The goal is to increase the flock's genetic stability and allow for population growth through successful reproduction, because low numbers of birds result in inbreeding, which causes genetic drift, meaning fewer viable eggs and weaker young. "Translocation is a very drastic measure," says Gillespie. "It's something as a conservationist you don't necessarily want to do, but when you have such a small and isolated population, it's necessary."

Gillespie led the translocation effort, trapping birds in Kansas and releasing them at Prairie Ridge -- while weathering some controversy that included political squawking about use of state planes to safely and quickly transport the birds. He knows that the strategy of moving birds from one place to another isn't always easy to understand. But he maintains its importance, and notes that the long-term plan for prairie chicken survival in Illinois may one day include another batch of translocated birds.

"The greater prairie chicken is conservation dependent," he says. "It can't survive without our intervention. It's a societal choice too. Do we want to maintain endangered species? Do we want to maintain species that are representative of the great prairie of Illinois? Or do we care less about that, and want to allow them to die out and diminish the landscape? That's the argument."

For Gillespie, there's only one answer. "I've worked with greater prairie chickens all my life. And every one of them is important to me." He spends his days at Prairie Ridge carefully monitoring the birds and other species dependent on the habitat he and his crew maintain, making sure the highly dynamic grasslands are "pushed toward their healthiest, most diverse state."

Following the translocation project, which ended last year, the Illinois prairie chicken flock is up to around 200 birds. "So far, we're very pleased with what we're seeing," Gillespie says. "When we started, we had 14 males in Jasper County and now we're seeing 73. The booming grounds have increased dramatically in size. That's a good sign." Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have launched a new study on prairie chicken genetics to assess the gene pool before and after translocation, which may help inform other conservationists employing this strategy to save species.

Other signs point the way forward as well. Gillespie has hope that more land can be purchased to increase prairie chicken habitat in Illinois. "We have a great agricultural heritage in Illinois," he says, "but we have a great prairie heritage too." And, he says, a stronger Illinois population could one day help support other flocks, should tragedy strike elsewhere.

As the sun comes up at Prairie Ridge, Gillespie looks out across a booming ground filled with strutting, sparring males -- a group he studies so closely that he recognizes most of them on sight -- and knows he's in the right place.

"The reason we do this," he says, "is that greater prairie chickens are important wherever they are. They're a great symbol of the American prairie. They're a unique organism that we should protect for ourselves, and for the people who come after us."


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