Habitat & Conservation  |  07/31/2023

Summer Update: The Dancing Classifications of Lesser Prairie Chickens


An estimated 27,000 lesser prairie chickens remain in a five-state region, reduced from their historical population of millions.

by Ron Leathers, PF & QF Chief Conservation Officer

An endearing symbol of early western culture, the lesser prairie chicken (LPC) 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 their historical population of millions.

Just how far have populations plummeted? Far enough for crisis mode. In mid-November 2022, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the southern population of lesser prairie chickens (New Mexico and west Texas) as endangered, and labeled the northern populations (Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and north Texas) as threatened.

But a clear path to federal protection of LPC’s is far from decided - a Congressional Review Act was introduced and voted upon by the U.S. Senate in May 2023 to rescind the USFWS classification, followed by a vote from the U.S. House of Representatives late last week – both votes passed.

If a Congressional Review Act resolution is approved by both chambers of Congress and signed by the president, the underlying rule becomes void, and the agency (USFWS) is prevented from future issuance of a rule that is “substantially the same” without an act of Congress. But in this instance, a Presidential veto is anticipated.

These new classifications will impact landowners who, in the end, will be key to saving a species from, yes, extinction. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s legacy of partnering with landowners to make a landscape that is better for wildlife and livelihoods (ranching) is going to be an important step in this process. We know that voluntary, incentive-based conservation is the greatest opportunity to positively impact lesser prairie chickens and save them.

Habitat loss via fragmentation has been the single largest culprit of dwindling LPC populations across their range. Unbroken prairie habitat void of vertical structure is essential for these iconic birds. 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 red cedar). 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 landowners, the bird and its habitat WILL 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 listed under the ESA. But it has happened. Now we all need to get to work, harder than ever, for grasslands.

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.