Aerial survey shows 25% increase in lesser prairie-chicken population

Abundant spring rainfall, along with ongoing conservation efforts, has helped increase lesser prairie-chicken populations approximately 25 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to results from the annual range-wide aerial survey.

The total lesser prairie-chicken population now numbers about 29,000 birds, according to Bill Van Pelt, grasslands coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), which commissioned the survey.

Males displaying on a lek in western Kansas. Courtesy of David Haukos.

Males displaying on a lek in western Kansas. Courtesy of David Haukos.

Researchers observed increases in three of four of the bird’s ecoregions across five states—Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The Sand Sage Prairie Region of southeast Colorado showed the biggest gain, with numbers up approximately 75 percent from a year ago. The Mixed Grass Prairie Region of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south central Kansas saw a roughly 30 percent increase, and the Shortgrass Prairie Region of northwest Kansas population grew by about 27 percent.

“An overall 25 percent increase in the lesser prairie-chicken population across its five-state range is welcome news,” said Ross Melinchuk, chairman of the WAFWA Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council.

WAFWA coordinates efforts established under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, an initiative to engage private landowners and industry to conserve the bird’s habitat and minimize impacts to the species.

Melinchuk expressed optimism about the species’ recovery. “This year’s increase, on the heels of last year’s 20 percent increase, is evidence of the species’ ability to rapidly recover from downturns as a result of drought and poor range condition.”

Jon Ungerer, coordinator of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), agrees. “We’re encouraged by these numbers. The kind of drought we’ve just gone through is hard on wildlife and producers. Plentiful rain was critical to the recovery. Much of the credit also goes to many landowners who implemented conservation strategies that helped the range rebound quickly.”

Ungerer explains, “Range management plans with sound drought-contingency strategies decrease the effects of drought, resulting in quicker recovery of the forage and habitat needed by producers and wildlife alike.”

Launched by NRCS in 2010, the LPCI partnership offers financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to implement range management practices that benefit lesser prairie-chicken habitat and ranch operations. WAFWA and NRCS collaborate closely through LPCI and the Range-wide Conservation Plan to provide assistance to private landowners, develop conservation plans, and monitor range health.

The only ecoregion with a continued downward lesser prairie-chicken population trend is the Shinnery Oak Region of eastern New Mexico and western Texas. This ecoregion is recovering from a prolonged period of drought. Recent roadside surveys indicate lesser prairie-chickens in this area are starting to respond to late 2014 and early 2015 rainfall.

“We’re confident that with continued moisture and drought relief, next year’s shinnery oak populations should continue to recover,” said WAFWA’s Van Pelt.

To date, industry partners have committed $46 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to WAFWA to pay for mitigation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve nearly 100,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.

NRCS investments of more than $20 million leveraged additional partner funding, resulting in over $25 million in on-the-ground habitat conservation practices. Through LPCI, more than 500 private landowners have enrolled almost 1 million acres in voluntary range-enhancement programs.

The lesser prairie-chicken was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May 2014. The final listing rule allowed private industry to develop and impact habitat if enrolled and participating in WAFWA’s range-wide plan, and it also provided various options that landowners can use to receive similar coverage.

The range-wide plan provides incentives for landowners and industry to protect and restore habitat, which is critical since they own and manage some 95% of the bird’s range. Farmers and ranchers may still enroll in LPCI and WAFWA conservation contracts and receive regulatory assurances for their agricultural operations.

For information on enrolling your land, contact your local USDA/NRCS office. For more information on WAFWA, including the range-wide plan, visit www.wafwa.org. Learn more about LPCI at www.lpcinitiative.org.