Prairie chicken numbers jumped 25% over past year

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, June 26, 2015


The population of a federally threatened grouse in the southern Great Plains grew by about 25 percent over the past year, marking the second consecutive year of significant growth, according to the preliminary results of a helicopter survey.

The lesser prairie chicken now numbers about 29,000 birds total, said Bill Van Pelt, grasslands coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which commissioned the survey.

The prairie chicken, known for its elaborate mating ritual, has risen from 18,747 birds in 2013 and 22,415 in 2014, according to WAFWA.

But numbers are still short of the estimated 34,000 birds counted in 2012 before a severe drought cut their population roughly in half.

In 2015, the bird’s population increased in three of its four eco-regions, but numbers fell in the shinnery oaks eco-region of Texas and New Mexico, Van Pelt said. Numbers were up 75 percent in the sand sage eco-region in southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and the northwestern Oklahoma panhandle, he said.

The latest population bump comes more than a year after the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list the birds as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, where their native grassland and prairie habitat had declined by 84 percent.

The listing decision was immediately challenged in court by environmental groups that believe the bird should be listed as endangered, as well as by oil and gas companies and New Mexico counties that believe the bird needs no federal protection.

Oral arguments in the oil and gas industry challenge are set for Wednesday in a federal court in Midland, Texas, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram.

Van Pelt said WAFWA’s rangewide conservation plan for the prairie chicken has raised $42 million since spring 2014 from energy developers, namely oil and gas companies, to support restoration and protection of the bird’s habitat.

WAFWA has signed 10 decadelong contracts to improve 96,000 acres, about 8,300 acres of which is currently unusable for prairie chicken due to invasive trees but will be restored, he said.

Landowners will receive close to $15 million to perform the restoration work on their property, he said.

Funding under the plan has also helped WAFWA purchase its first plot of land — 1,600 acres in Texas — to be placed in a permanent conservation easement, Van Pelt said.

Environmental groups have been critical of the WAFWA plan, arguing it focuses too heavily on short-term habitat improvement projects. In the spring, Defenders of Wildlife blasted the Fish and Wildlife Service for exempting WAFWA from meeting a requirement in the rangewide plan that at least 25 percent of the mitigation land that the group secures be permanently conserved (Greenwire, April 7).