This iconic species exists on borrowed time unless increased private land conservation funding helps landowners conserve grasslands in western landscapes
by Ron Leathers, PF & QF Chief Conservation Officer
An endearing symbol of early western culture, the lesser prairie chicken was described by pioneers of the southern Great Plains in the 1800s as a bird with “flocks so numerous, they could blot out the sun.”
Today, an estimated 27,000 lesser prairie chickens remain in a five-state region, reduced from that historical population of millions.
Just how far have the bird’s populations plummeted? Far enough for crisis mode. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service just listed the southern population of lesser prairie chickens (New Mexico and Texas) as endangered, while the northern populations (Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado) are now labeled as threatened.
These new classifications will impact landowners who, in the end, are going to be key to saving a species from, yes, extinction.
Fact: 95% of the land across lesser prairie chicken range is privately owned. Part of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s legacy is partnering with landowners to make a landscape that is better for wildlife and livelihoods. It can be done. We believe voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs — the kind of programs we help implement on the landscape — are the greatest opportunity to positively impact lesser prairie chickens and save them.
Fragmentation via habitat loss has been the single largest culprit of dwindling lesser prairie chicken populations across their range. Unbroken prairie habitat void of vertical structure is essential for lesser prairie chickens to thrive and expand. That is a particularly difficult scenario in a 21st century landscape divided into 640-acre blocks and succumbing to the pressures of global food shortages, energy development and invasive threats (think eastern redcedar). Add this: Record drought conditions are taking aim at the bird’s last remaining strongholds.
It is not a rosy picture. But the lesser prairie chicken has many advocates. One of them is the American rancher. Another is PF & QF. With the right kinds and amount of incentive-based, strategic focus for conservation, positive strides for the bird and its habitat CAN be made.
Presently, the lesser prairie chicken is a nationally-identified target species of the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership, a collaborative approach to conserve habitat while keeping working lands working. Under this format, conservation-minded landowners are helping this at-risk bird — a keystone species of the southern Great Plains — and other wildlife by voluntarily improving the health of prairie and grassland ecosystems. This win-win scenario for producers provides financial incentives for their time and effort, and at the end of the day, more Animal Unit Months (grazing standard) per acre.
In addition to WLFW, a host of other programs and initiatives benefit the farmer/rancher, lesser prairie chickens and range conditions. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever are actively helping landowners identify and implement practices as part of the Great Plains Grassland Initiative, CRP’s State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, Grassland Restoration Incentive Program, and others. All need more funding.
No one — conservationist, rancher, hunter or wildlife lover (and those are not mutually exclusive terms) — wants to see any bird or animal go on the endangered species list. But it has happened. Now we all need to get to work, harder than ever, for grasslands.
The precarious situation facing the lesser prairie chicken draws attention to the unhealthy state of all America’s grasslands, with more than 50 million acres lost since 2007. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever continue to advocate for additional strategic funding that can turn the tide for grasslands in this country. Through the monumental Call of the Uplands®, campaign, PF & QF is deploying every resource in our conservation toolbox to create more upland wildlife habitat and bring back what is being lost, including the lesser prairie chicken.
For more information about voluntary conservation practices positively impacting lesser prairie chickens in the Great Plains, schedule a visit with a private lands biologist by visiting pheasantsforever.org/crp.