American Indians

Wellcome Library, London

Lesser prairie-chickens and humans have lived together on the Great Plains for thousands of years.

For thousands of years before Euro-American settlement, people and lesser prairie-chickens lived together in the Southern Great Plains prairie community. One of the ceremonial dances of the Blackfoot and Plains Cree tribes — the chicken dance —  celebrates the interconnection between native people and this grassland grouse.

As described by Shannon Thunderbird of the Giluts’aaw Tribe, dancers mime the male prairie-chicken’s display rituals, fluffing feathers, strutting, using a pecking motion of the head, and tapping the ground, all the while moving forward and spinning.

Shannon Thunderbird photo

Shannon Thunderbird photo

Euro-American settlement transformed life on the Great Plains for most native prairie inhabitants, including the lesser prairie-chicken. Plowing of prairie grasslands to cultivate crops greatly reduced habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, a major cause of its population decline.

Researchers estimate that roughly a million lesser prairie-chickens inhabited the Southern Great Plains prior to Euro-American settlement. By the 1930s, lesser prairie-chicken populations were nearly extirpated in Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico, and declined markedly in Oklahoma and Texas (Baker 1953, Crawford 1980). Populations increased somewhat during the 1980s, but declined again in the 1990s (Mote et al. 1998). In 2014, aerial studies estimated the population at 22,415 (McDonald et al, 2014).