Regulators sound alarm as prairie chicken numbers plunge

Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, July 1, 2016



A coalition of state wildlife regulators today announced that the population of lesser prairie chickens in the wild has fallen by more than 13 percent since the last annual aerial survey — a troubling outcome the Obama administration predicted earlier this year.

There is now an estimated breeding population of 25,261 birds, down from 29,162 at the same point last year, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA (Greenwire, June 26, 2015).

The decline ends a two-year streak of population increases and comes after the Obama administration lost a pair of legal challenges that sought to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections for the bird, which today survives on just 12 percent of its historical range.

Found in four eco-regions across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, prairie chickens have been harmed by development and a 2012 drought that reduced their population from around 34,000 birds to just over 17,600.

The latest surveys indicated apparent population increases in the prairie chicken’s shinnery oak eco-region of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle and the sand sagebrush eco-region of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas, WAFWA said. The lesser prairie chicken populations in those areas had experienced the greatest drops as a result of the drought.

Meanwhile, population decreases were observed in the mixed-grass prairie eco-region of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas, and the short-grass prairie region of northwest Kansas.

WAFWA, which supported the oil-industry-led lawsuit that delisted the prairie chicken, sought to downplay the significance of the overall decline.

“Just as with last year’s population increase, we shouldn’t read too much into short-term fluctuations over one or two years,” Bill Van Pelt, the coalition’s grassland coordinator, said in a press release.

“Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit a large geographic landscape with highly variable weather patterns, so we expect to see annual and regional population fluctuations,” he added. “What these numbers show is the importance of maintaining good prairie habitat for long-term population stability.”

But WAFWA has struggled to purchase permanent conservation areas for the grouse family member, which is known for its elaborate mating ritual.

Strongholds of 25,000 to 50,000 acres of land protected in perpetuity are needed to “support viable [lesser prairie chicken] populations,” according to a rangewide plan WAFWA released in 2013. It set a goal of establishing “one or more strongholds” in each of the eco-regions in which the bird is found and offsetting 25 percent of the acreage affected by development with permanent conservation.

Yet more than two years after implementing the voluntary industry-funded plan, WAFWA has only permanently conserved a 1,604-acre track of Texas native rangeland and 30,000 acres of sand sagebrush habitat in southwest Kansas.

The administration, which initially supported the rangewide plan, warned in court this spring that relying on voluntary measures without greater habitat protections provided by the ESA could “put the species on a path towards a ‘death spiral’ from which it cannot recover” (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

To date, industry participants have committed over $60 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, WAFWA said. Those dollars have helped landowners across the range agree to conserve over 130,000 acres of habitat, mainly through 10-year conservation agreements.

“We are optimistic about the lesser prairie chicken’s future,” said Alexa Sandoval, chairwoman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “Habitat conservation and species recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. We appreciate the continued commitment of all of our partners in our ongoing conservation efforts.”