BOISE, Idaho – Earlier this year, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) announced it would conduct a series of aerial surveys in five states to document lesser prairie chicken population trends. Results from the surveys, conducted March 16 through mid-May, are in and the outlook is promising. Continuing an upward trend for the species over the last few years, the newest data shows an estimated breeding population of 38,637 birds this year, compared to 29,934 birds last year.
“This approximately 30 percent annual increase is good news, but we know that year-to-year fluctuations are the norm with upland birds like the lesser prairie chicken,” said Roger Wolfe, WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie Chicken Program manager. “The most encouraging result from the survey is the steadily increasing population trend over the last six years, which likely reflects improving habitat conditions.”
Lesser prairie chickens are found in four ecoregions in five states: Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Many wildlife biologists attribute the species’ fluctuation in numbers to changes in habitat conditions, largely influenced by weather patterns. More favorable weather patterns this past year contributed to apparent increases in three of four ecoregions. There is concern that moderate-to-severe drought over portions of the lesser prairie chicken range this year may lead to a downturn next year.
The shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle saw the biggest annual increase in birds, followed by the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas. The shortgrass ecoregion, which covers northwest Kansas, also registered an annual increase in the number of breeding birds. The estimated number of birds in the mixed-grass ecoregion – spanning the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas – is similar to last year’s estimate.
The annual population surveys are conducted as part of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Plan, a collaborative effort of WAFWA and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, as well as state wildlife agencies in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Colorado. It was developed to ensure the conservation of the lesser prairie chicken with voluntary cooperation of landowners and industry, and allows agricultural producers and industry to continue operations while reducing impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat.
“We’re encouraged by this year’s numbers but are mindful that successful conservation of the lesser prairie chicken will require decades of consistent progress,” said J.D. Strong, Chairman of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative Council and Director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “The continued success of the range-wide plan depends on ongoing participation by industry partners, and we are grateful for the support shown thus far. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be making another ruling on the status of the lesser prairie chicken later this year, and industry support of the plan is more important than ever. At such a critical juncture in the conservation of this important but imperiled prairie grouse, we encourage industry to contact us and get involved.”
For more information about the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, contact Wolfe at [email protected]