Lesser prairie chicken next in line on endangered species list

Jul 27, 2012

The lesser prairie chicken—a small grouse—is now a candidate for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listing as a threatened or endangered species. The service has started an indepth study of current risks for the bird and its habitats.

“No matter what happens, landowners will be directly responsible for the fate of this species,” said Charlie Lee, Kansas State University Research and Extension wildlife specialist. “Most of its habitat is privately-owned acreage.

“For landowners, the real issue is whether management authority will stay at the state agency level or become a federal concern. This may include any habitat restoration projects for the lesser prairie chicken.”

The debate is likely to be heated, Lee said, because many landowners fear the potential restrictions a threatened or endangered listing might bring.

A sometimes game bird, the lesser prairie chicken was plentiful long ago. Its range includes parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. But, 50 percent of the current population lives in southwest and south-central Kansas—the only state that still has a lesser prairie chicken hunting season.

Ironically, the Kansas population isn’t just thriving, Lee said. (Hunting typically results in less than 2 percent mortality for the state flock.) In fact, the birds’ habitat seems to be expanding northward.

Survey teams detected the birds in Kansas beyond what was thought to be the northern extent of the birds’ historic range.

“Their breeding grounds used to be south of the Arkansas River. But, the birds have slowly been increasing their range. We’ve now got breeding grounds as far north as Thomas County,” he said.

The first range-wide aerial survey to assess the birds’ population across portions of five states this spring detected several other previously unknown breeding areas, despite severe drought across the region for two years.

Lee added, however, some reasons for the state’s success could easily erode:

* When Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire, landowners could convert large blocks of prairie or grass back into growing crops.

* Overgrazing cattle pastures can lead to a long, slow recovery. Yet, balancing beef gains and grass health can be difficult to impossible during heat and drought.

* Energy and communications structures can fragment habitat. Even tall trees make lesser prairie chickens nervous. Studies show that during nesting and brood rearing, the birds will avoid about 2,000 acres around a wind turbine.

In a letter to FWS Director Dan M. Ashe, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and several other lawmakers said officials in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico had taken steps to preserve the bird’s habitat.

In Oklahoma, that has included $42 million devoted to conservation efforts, along with management activities on more than 563,000 acres of habitat, the letter states.

According to Inhofe, a listing of the lesser prairie chicken could hamper wind power development and farming in the bird’s northwestern Oklahoma habitat.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Director Richard Hatcher said in March that the bird faces a “dire” situation but that he was hoping FWS would allow states to manage the species rather than list it.

FWS has developed the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) to work with private landowners and managers in the geographic range of the lesser prairie chicken. This voluntary program was designed to help reverse the current declining trend in lesser prairie chicken numbers by promoting habitat conservation and restoration through various management practices such as prescribed grazing, upland wildlife habitat management, brush management, prescribed burning, range planting and restoration and management of rare or declining habitats.

The goal of CCAA is to improve habitat and populations which could preclude the listing of this species. Following the terms outlined in the CCAA provides landowners protection from potential federal restrictions to land use if the bird was listed.

Also, through the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative and Working Lands for Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service offers landowners up to 75 percent financial assistance for the installation of conservation practices that promote healthy grazing lands and are also beneficial for the lesser prairie chicken.

The lesser prairie chicken has been considered a candidate under the Endangered Species Act since 1998. A decision on whether to list the bird is expected in the next few months. —

Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor