WAFWA: Aerial survey finds lesser prairie chicken population grew

A recent range-wide aerial survey found the lesser prairie chicken population rose 25% from 2014 to 2015, the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) reported. The bird’s habitat lies in five US Midcontinent states with oil and gas production.

Abundant spring rainfall, along with ongoing efforts associated with the a range-wide conservation plan involving the oil and gas and other industries, landowners, and state regulators, are thought to have contributed to the bird’s population increase.

Efforts to improve the bird’s habitat are comparable to those by a similar coalition involving the greater sage grouse in parts of 11 Western states. The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) faces a September deadline to reach a decision whether to list that bird as endangered or threatened under a legal settlement it reached with some environmental organizations.

FWS listed the lesser prairie chicken as endangered in December 2012, and amended the designation a year later to allow ongoing conservation measures under Section 4[d) of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (OGJ Online, Dec. 3, 2012).

WAFWA said that lesser prairie chicken population increases were observed in three of four of the bird’s eco-regions across Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Sand Sage Prairie Region of southeastern Colorado showed the biggest gain—approximately 75%—from 2014.

The bird’s population grew about 30% year-to-year in Mixed Grass Prairie Region of the Northeast Panhandle of Texas, Northwest Oklahoma, and South Central Kansas, WAFWA said. The estimated number of lesser prairie chickens in the Shortgrass Prairie Region in Northwest Kansas rose about 27% during the same period, it said.

“This year’s increase, on the heels of last year’s 20% increase, is evidence of the species’ ability to rapidly recover from downturns as a result of drought and poor range condition,” said Ross Melinchuk, who chairs WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative Council.

“With continued improvement in nesting and brood-rearing habitat associated with more abundant rainfall and private landowner actions to conserve and restore their habitat, we are optimistic the species will recover to historic population levels,” Melinchuk said.

WAFWA said the only lesser prairie chicken eco-region with a continued downward population trend is the Shinnery Oak area of eastern New Mexico and western Texas, which is recovering from a prolonged period of drought. Recent roadside surveys indicate lesser prairie chickens in this area are starting to respond to rainfall in late 2014 and early 2015, it noted.

The organization is coordinating efforts under the Lesser Prairie Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan. Under that initiative, industry partners have committed $46 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for mitigation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve nearly 100,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements, WAFWA said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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