Saving the lesser prairie chicken

David Wolfe

David is EDF's director of Conservation Strategies.  
Published October 22, 2013 in Ecosystems

There are no wild Attwater’s prairie chickens on Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Texas. When I say “wild” I mean born and raised in the wild – born with the knowledge to run like hell and hide in some bush or clump of grass when a hawk appears.

Wait…Why run when you can fly? Because prairie chickens fly only slightly better than pigs. With their ungainly bodies and stubby wings, they flap like crazy just to get a few feet off the ground for a few seconds. Far better for a prairie chicken to use leg power and ground concealment than to take to the air.

Why are there no wild Attwater’s prairie chickens on the Texas refuge? There were an estimated 1 million of them running around the coastal prairie of Texas and Louisiana in 1900. Rapid loss of their habitat over the next four decades (welcome to Houston!) reduced the population to about 9,000 birds – a level below the extinction threshold for this species. (Extinction threshold is the point at which a population has declined so much that disease, inbreeding or even a major storm can wipe out the remaining individuals in the blink of an eye.) And extinction is what happened to the Attwater’s prairie chickens.

The few dozen Attwater’s prairie chickens that do exist on the refuge today were all raised in zoos. They don’t have the survival knowledge of their (now extinct) wild cousins. Though much care is taken to prepare them for the wild, still many end up contributing quickly to the food chain.

Saving the lesser prairie chicken

What have we learned from the Attwater’s prairie-chicken experience? How can we use this knowledge to create a better outcome for the Lesser prairie-chicken, a close cousin of the Attwater’s? The biggest lesson is that prairie chickens need vast expanses of habitat in order to survive extended droughts and a multitude of other threats. By vast I mean millions of acres – far more than can ever be preserved through purchase and the establishment of federal or state refuges and preserves.

The lesser prairie chicken, which lives in the southern Great Plains, is following the same downward trajectory the Attwater traced roughly a century ago. Like the Attwater’s, it used to number in the millions and it, too, has faced extensive loss of habitat and precipitous population declines. There are just  17,000 lesser prairie chickens in the wild. That is the lowest recorded population ever for this species and it represents a roughly 50 % drop from the population in 2012. Reputable scientists are warning that this species is at, or near, its extinction threshold, and in November 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species. 

In order to reverse declines of the lesser prairie chicken we need to quickly preserve the last remaining patches of high quality habitat and concurrently restore hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of acres of new habitat. The vast majority of existing and potential habitat is on private lands – mostly farms and ranches, conservative folks who may be hesitant to engage in conservation of a species that stands a good chance of being subject to federal government regulations.

What to do? EDF has a long history of working cooperatively with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners across the country to restore and conserve habitat for threatened, endangered and at risk species. We have a more recent history of working with the oil, gas and wind industries to ensure the responsible development of energy resources. We are now putting these successful programs together to conserve a declining species in an agricultural landscape with intensive energy development. 

We have established an amazing partnership of diverse interests ranging from Exxon to the Kansas Farm Bureau. We  are also successfully developing a strategy to recover the Lesser prairie-chicken, while enabling the responsible continuation of farming, ranching and energy development, all of which are vital to the economy of the southern Great Plains. We call this strategy the Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Exchange.

What is the Habitat Exchange and how does it work?

Basically, farmers and ranchers can generate a new source of income for themselves by restoring and managing lesser prairie chicken habitat. Landowners receive credits by taking  conservation actions that benefit the species, like planting native grasses, conducting prescribed burns, removing fences and cutting down invasive trees. They can then market these “chicken credits” through the Habitat Exchange to energy companies that need to offset the impacts of their development projects on lesser prairie chicken habitat. Every transaction requires a net benefit to the species. The strategy is designed to strongly incentivize conservation in the areas that are most important to the lesser prairie chicken and to minimize energy development in these areas.

The goal? Nothing short of putting the bird on a positive trajectory of recovery and long-term sustainability.

The first major step in this strategy is the launch of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Exchange, which will occur this fall. The prospects for success are excellent! Farmers and ranchers from across the southern Great Plains are already asking detailed questions about how and when they can participate. Several major oil companies are now planning for their first investments in credits. All of this bodes well for restoring healthy wild populations of the lesser prairie chicken. I look forward to the day when “growing prairie chickens” becomes as common as growing cotton or cows. 

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