Lesser prairie-chickens take top billing in the latest issue of The Wildlife Professional, trade journal of The Wildlife Society, an international scientific and educational association dedicated to excellence in wildlife stewardship. The cover story explores the current state of lesser prairie-chickens over their five-state range.
In David Frey’s article, Boom or Bust?, researchers from across the southern Great Plains weighed in on the bird’s recovery. Christian Hagen, science advisor for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI), expressed cautious optimism about populations trends. “On the whole, things are actually looking quite good,” Hagen said. “It’s certainly not the growth rate we’d like to see, but all the trends we see are headed in the right direction.”
The researchers agree that it all comes down to habitat. “The biggest thing for these birds is intact pieces of prairie, and keeping ranchers ranching to retain prairie as prairie,” Hagen said.
LPCI partner organizations across the southern Great Plains have been working toward that goal. New Mexico wildlife biologist Tish McDaniel of the Center of Excellence described her organization’s strategy. “We put a lot of effort into habitat restoration, working with ranchers, mitigating with oil and gas. All the work that we do to try to make things as good as they can be, so when the bird numbers do increase, we will still have habitat for them.”
Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit four distinct ecoregions within the southern Great Plains—each with its own recovery challenges. Though their entire range is drought-prone, the western portion of the range receives the least annual rainfall.
Colorado’s prairie-chicken population is the smallest of the five states, with less than 100 birds in the southwest corner of the state. “In the past decade we’ve seen a pretty dramatic decline,” said Cody Strong, an LPCI wildlife biologist in Colorado. “The chicken has not done as well here [as in other parts of the range], but we’re getting its habitat in a better place now.”
Prairie chicken numbers are strongest in Kansas. Curiously, their numbers have increased significantly in northwest Kansas as the birds have actually spread into areas previously unoccupied by lesser prairie-chickens. Kansas State University researcher Dave Haukos noted that this increase appears connected with the availability of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands in this region.
Haukos struck an optimistic note about the lesser prairie-chicken’s future. “They’re a boom-and-bust species,” he said. “They’re very resilient. So long as they do have available habitat in sufficient quantity and quality, they can survive.”
Indeed, prairie-chicken numbers have rebounded across the chicken’s five-state range since the intensive drought of 2012-13, with last year’s population estimate just over 25,000 birds.
Researchers expressed concern that climate change will push the limits of that resilience. “This is the southern extreme of the population,” McDaniel said, “And with the temperature increasing, this will be the part of the population that will be affected the most.”
For a habitat-conservation initiative like the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led LPCI, the take-away from Frey’s article is that we’re on the right track. Healthy, resilient habitat is the key to the lesser prairie-chicken’s survival. With 95% of the bird’s habitat in private ownership, helping ranchers adopt habitat conservation practices that work well for both bird and herd is an essential strategy for lesser prairie-chicken recovery.