Iconic Upland Gamebird Fading from the Wild and from Hunters' Minds

Lesser prairie chickens are in big trouble. They were--at one time--the most important and probably most numerous gamebird on the southern and central plains. They numbered in the millions and rivaled the bobwhite quail in both numbers, popularity and cultural tradition. Everyone on the southern plains hunted chickens. These days, few hunters are familiar with them. And their decline is probably the most interesting and ultimately tragic upland game conservation story no one has ever heard of.

All the usual suspects are to blame: habitat loss, climate change, booming energy development of both the wind and gas varieties--all have played a part. For example, grasslands are being converted for agricultural production at an absolutely stunning pace. But it's not only these factors. There is also the issue of non-awareness among hunters. The lesser prairie chicken, like most prairie gamebirds, has been on a well-charted long, slow multi-decade decline. Much like the chickens themselves, those who grew up hunting chickens are becoming fewer each year. Coincide that with the fact there are simply fewer new or younger hunters out there now who hunt any upland birds and you start chasing the demographic dragon.

I grew up always wanting to hunt lessers, but by the time I got around to actually attempting it, Oklahoma's chicken season was history due to the continued decline of chicken numbers and chicken hunters. This formerly popular and populous prairie gamebird effectively reduced to the status of recreational extinction.

I've been to a number of regional stakeholder meetings about the lesser prairie chicken, and by and large, hunters aren't really represented at these meetings. It amazes me that we're on a precipice, the very edge of losing an iconic species and no one really knows about it. And part of that ignorance, I think, stems from the fact that no one really knows just how few lesser prairie chickens are left.

So it was with a great deal of interest that I read a press release yesterday that, for the first time, put an empirical number, a baseline on the current number of lesser prairie chickens left in the wild.

From a press release from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies:
_The lesser prairie chicken is an iconic grassland grouse species native to parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. However, long-term population declines have brought state and federal agencies together in an attempt to better manage lesser prairie chickens and their habitats. Through a multi-state collaborative effort, the first statistically-valid, range-wide population estimate for the lesser prairie chicken has been produced, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' (WAFWA) Grassland Initiative. The range- wide lesser prairie chicken population is estimated at 37,170 individuals. ...

... While the lesser prairie chicken population estimate may appear low, biologists are encouraged by what they found. The surveys this spring detected several previously unknown leks, despite severe drought conditions across the region last year. They also discovered leks in Kansas beyond what was thought to be the northern limit of the historic range of the species. Lesser prairie chicken numbers have been largely increasing in Kansas for the last 15 years, while populations have declined in parts of the southern portion of the range. Biologists believe this expansion may represent a northward shift in the population of the species caused by climatic conditions associated with changing precipitation patterns.

"Historically, we saw habitat conditions like we are observing now in the 1930s, and we thought the species went extinct", said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA Grassland Coordinator. "However, with habitat conservation programs being implemented through various Farm Bill programs and Candidate Conservation Agreements under the Endangered Species Act, we are seeing lesser prairie chickens maintaining themselves and even expanding into new areas in some parts of their range. This definitely boosts our confidence in coming up with a plan to maintain this species", concludes Van Pelt. The final survey report is available at http://www.wafwa.org/html/aerial_surveys.shtml._

So at least now we know. From literally millions to some 37,000 birds hanging on at the very margins of sustainability. It is, I suppose, cause for both hope and despair.

The lesser prairie chicken's survival parallels another historically significant and once-populous species that recently made the news: the greenback cutthroat trout. Turns out the fish many of us thought were native greenbacks are in fact a different strain of fish, according to Kirk Deeter's recent FlyTalk blog. I found the story incredibly poignant. To think that the entire remaining population of true native greenbacks can now be found in one tiny creek. That's it, no more, anywhere.

Now there''s the possibility of no more greenbacks and lesser prairie chickens. The similarity in the arcs of their respective stories, is sadly telling. But at least now, with both species, we know exactly what we have to work with, and what we need to do. Here's hoping we actually do it.

CC image from Wikipedia