The Lesser Prairie-Chicken has been considered a candidate under the Endangered Species Act since 1998, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife is doing their part to put together a detailed and accurate survey of the birds populations and habitats. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken's natural environment exists across a 5 state range, and Russel Martin at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said that they concluded aerial surveys this spring to gain a better grasp on the situation.
"Parks and Wildlife and the four other state wildlife agencies within the prairie-chicken range are working together to try to come up with enough information to help the Fish and Wildlife Service make a reasonable determination about the status," Martin said.
Normal habitat of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken includes native grass land and prairie ranging as far north as Kansas and Colorado, as well as south into the Texas Panhandle.
"The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is a native, ground-nesting bird that has been in decline for the last 50 to 60 years where we've been monitoring the populations," Martin said. "They've had a range-wide destruction or net loss of habitat, which has led to the decreasing numbers."
Nationally sponsored programs such as CRP acres and Grassland Habitat Conservations initiated over 25 years ago have served the dual purpose of preserving wildlife habitat while also maintaining natural soil conditions.
"There's an isolated pocket in Kansas mainly that has seen stability of the numbers," Martin said. "The numbers aren't declining as significantly there and we believe that's due to the fact that Kansas decided to use only native grass species in restoration efforts back in the 1985 Farm Bill when the Conservation Reserve Program was created."
Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas worked together this spring to conduct the first ever range-wide aerial survey of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitats and breeding grounds.
"We've been surveying multiple species by the air for years now," Martin said. "We started out with pronghorn, went out surveying mule deer aerially, and we recently started surveying prairie chicken aerially here in Texas about 3 years ago. Last year, or this past spring was the first year that all 5 states conducted an aerial survey using the same methodology."
The more data the agency gathers regarding the species, then the more informed decision can be made as to what direction is needed.
"It's absolutely our goal to keep the prairie-chicken off the list, as with most of our species here," Martin said. "We feel that the state and private landowners that live here are much more capable of determining how to best manage our natural resources rather than bureaucrats in Albuquerque or Washington D.C.. So we would prefer to keep the species off the list and to work with willing landowners that voluntarily opt into programs to provide prairie-chicken or any kind of wildlife habitat."
Several agriculture groups are making Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances available to get producers involved.
"There are multiple agencies and multiple programs that are benefiting not just the prairie-chicken, but all the wildlife species that we have here on the High Plains," Martin said. FSA obviously provides a lot of money and programs, mainly through CRP, but also through the Wetland Reserve Program and a little bit through the Grassland Reserve Program."
Ag producers and landowners are working diligently to benefit native habitats and eco-systems.
"We have landowners that we're working with to modify or implement conservation practices such as prescribed grazing, fencing, watering, all these things. Here's what the landowners are already doing to provide for prairie-chicken habitat," Martin said.
Local producers will get the opportunity to learn more about the Candidate Conservation Programs in meetings hosted next month.
"The local Soil and Water Conservation Districts are going to be hosting some public meetings about these CCAAs July 10, one in Morton and one in Plains," Martin said. "We are highly encouraging all of producers west of Lubbock to attend those meetings. Anybody who's in prairie-chicken range will definitely benefit from hearing about CCAAs."
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is providing substantial research and information to get a realistic grasp on the prairie-chicken situation.
"We're all kind of working together to get to that point where we can provide better conservation across the board for all the species,and most importantly for the producers," Martin said.
Although the aerial surveys were concluded by late April, detailed trends and results have not yet been released. However, Martin is certain that the years of data collection and conservation acts already in place by agriculture producers and landowners will aid their goal in keeping the Lesser Prairie-Chicken off of the Endangered Species Act list of concern.