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Exotic livestock not all that rare

I was living in Spokane, Wash., back in 1986, and doing quite a little fishing. One particular day, our small group had driven down to the Grande Ronde River in the southeast corner of the state to pursue steelhead trout. Just upstream from where the Grande Ronde joins the Snake River, it's a dry desolate area with high, steep-sloping, rocky canyon walls.

We were not alone that day. Another vehicle, loaded with gear, parked along the gravel. They weren't after steelhead though. They had a dog and shotguns and were heading up the slopes in pursuit of chukar (Alectoris chukar).

This is a bird most North Dakotans are likely unfamiliar with. Originally it was brought over from Pakistan and introduced as a game species. It's become established largely in the Great Basin where it represents a challenging hunting opportunity.

This spring I received an unusual number of reports from local folks who were seeing chukar, most from the north edge of Fargo. The origin of these birds is anyone's guess, so I attempted a little detective work.

The raising of most exotic animals, birds in particular, does not require much in the way of bureaucratic red tape. Chukars fall into category 1 of the non-traditional livestock permitting system. Category 1 includes "those species generally considered domestic, or other species that are not inherently dangerous, that do not pose a health risk to humans, domestic, or wild species, and do not pose a hazard to the environment."

The state Board of Animal Health is the go-to agency for permits. Dr. Beth Carlson, Deputy State Veterinarian, said there is no fee and no facility requirements. "Though we do require a permit, they are actually pretty easy to obtain."

If it's so simple, I wondered why the need for a permit at all. Carlson said, "The Game and Fish (NDG&F) wants to keep track of who has them and where they are. Other than that there isn't much regulation."

Peafowl and Guinea fowl have been around for generations but other exotics catch the interest of rural enthusiasts. "You name it, somebody has got it," said Greg Link, Assistant Chief, Wildlife Division, NDG&F Dept. Carlson said, "I just had a guy last week asking about wild turkeys. Not ours, but the Mexican variety. He wants them for research and taxidermy I guess."

There are likely as many reasons for raising exotics as there are people doing it. But chukar seem to offer something different for one group. Carlson said, "We don't really keep track of what people do with them but I know they are popular with dog trainers." Link, when describing chukar said, "They are easy to obtain and keep. But the birds behave similarly to our local game birds, hence they are routinely used by dog trainers."

On the list of permitees supplied by the Board of Animal Health, Harold Scheffert Jr. of Oakes, N. D., is the closest to Fargo raising chukars. "I just like them I guess," he said. Scheffert raises and sells the birds to dog trainers; some have gone to folks as far away as the Twin Cities.

A North Dakota winter can be hard on native species. For non-native exotics, it's downright lethal. While chukars have been raised for years throughout the state, the bird has not become established. "Chukars just can't take the winters here," said Scheffert. Weather, then, is a definite show stopper.

Given the limited amount of evidence, there are three likely sources for the local chukar sightings. One, an unpermitted person is raising them close to Fargo. Two, a nearby Minnesota breeder keeps chukar, some fleeing across the Red River. And three, a local dog trainer is buying the birds with some escaping. In my opinion, the third alternative is the most likely.

Years ago I dismissed claims of exotic bird sightings as misidentifications. Then I saw a chukar strutting across a West Fargo lawn and became a believer. With all the different species being raised out there, almost anything is possible.