The latest lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey shows bird population trends remain stable after five years of aerial survey data collection. Conducted by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), the surveys indicated an estimated breeding population of 25,261 birds this year which scientists say is not significantly different from the 29,162 birds estimated in 2015 given the variability in the survey methodology. This spring’s breeding population remains significantly larger than the 17,616 birds estimated in 2013 following two years of severe drought.
Lesser prairie-chickens on a lek in New Mexico. Nick Richter photo
Lesser-prairie chickens inhabit four ecoregions in five states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Their numbers regularly fluctuate up and down from year to year due to changes in habitat conditions, mainly influenced by rainfall patterns. The surveys this year indicated apparent population increases in the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle and the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas. Lesser prairie-chicken populations in these regions experienced the most decline as a result of the 2011-2012 drought.
Aerial surveys recorded population decreases in the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas, and the short-grass prairie region of northwest Kansas.
“Just as with last year’s population increase, we shouldn’t read too much into short-term fluctuations over one or two years,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator. “Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit a large geographic landscape with highly variable weather patterns, so we expect to see annual and regional population fluctuations.”
Van Pelt added that these numbers show the importance of maintaining good prairie habitat for long-term population stability. “Voluntary conservation efforts like the range-wide plan help to ensure that suitable habitat is available so these population increases can occur when weather conditions are suitable,” he said.
Brad Odle (right) is one of four WAFWA regional biologists working with private landowners to improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat.
WAFWA oversees the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan (RWP) in collaboration with state wildlife agencies of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The plan was developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry. Industry contributions support conservation actions implemented by participating private landowners. To date, industry partners have committed over $60 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve over 130,000 acres of habitat through the RWP’s 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.
WAFWA is a partner organization in the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI), a conservation partnership launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010. Since its inception, LPCI has enrolled more than 450 landowners in conservation agreements to improve grassland habitat on more than one million acres.
LPCI, WAFWA, and other partner organizations offer a range of voluntary technical and financial support to landowners to create habitat conditions that benefit lesser prairie-chickens and support long-term viability of agricultural operations.
“With continued improvement in nesting and brood-rearing habitat associated with good weather conditions and private landowner conservation actions, we are optimistic about the lesser prairie-chicken’s future,” said Alexa Sandoval, chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “Habitat conservation and species recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. We appreciate the continued commitment of all of our partners in our ongoing conservation efforts.”