Bird Conservation photo

Photograph courtesy of USFWS/Flickr

The sage grouse currently commands substantial attention across the West as a candidate for landing on the Endangered Species List, but another type of grouse that’s already endangered is in more trouble: the Attwater’s prairie chicken.

As The New York Times reports, the total number of prairie chickens nationwide is hovering around 104. The annual count in Texas is up from a record low of just 40 in 2002—but the recovery remains slow. At a cost of $1 million annually in federal funding to protect the species, there are very few birds to show for the investment since the bird’s inclusion onto the Endangered Species List in 1967.

The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, in Eagle Lake, Texas, uses most of the $1 million in federal money for research. The refuge is a protected coastal prairie where efforts and experiments are done to increase the chicken’s population. Recently, scientists there made a connection between invasive fire ants and the decline of Attwater’s prairie chickens: The ants are swarming and killing the chicks.

“It may not be the entire silver bullet, but it’s a pretty good chunk of that silver bullet,” says Terry Rossignol, manager of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. “We now have at least something that we can do to really change things around and get this bird’s survival going.”

Efforts to exterminate the ants at the refuge have produced positive results and more chicks have survived in the wild, but rain in May drowned many of them, setting back the recovery.

Rossignol is undeterred, though. He estimates that the 600 captive birds released this year, plus birds born in the wild, will result in more than 150 Attwater’s prairie chickens, despite the recent losses.