Despite continued efforts the Lesser Prairie-Chicken makes the endangered species listing in another blow to native grouse species.
11/23/22 Update: The Lesser Prairie-Chicken was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on November 17th, 2022. Although being listed comes with additional management and financial support, “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service cannot recover lesser prairie-chickens with regulations” according to the North American Grouse Partnership. “It is the voluntary participation of landowners who hold the key to the future of these cherished places and iconic species,” wrote Ted Koch, their executive director, in a press release.
Hopefully, strategic conservation support from the federal government along with private landowner partnerships will ensure the restoration of this iconic grassland species.
Envision North America’s vast southern Great Plains in the early 1800s. What do you see? Perhaps blades of bluestem grass swaying in the sunlight, horseback Comanche loping over rolling hills, or bison grazing on a river’s edge. Historically, large congregations of Lesser Prairie-Chickens were a part of that landscape, too. However, that’s no longer the case.
“When humans waded through this sea of grass over a century ago and fed themselves on wild Lesser Prairie-Chickens,” wrote Ted Koch, the Executive Director of the North American Grouse Partnership (NAGP), in a recent op-ed, “they could have never imagined the day when all that remained were a few patches of wild prairie and an endangered species.”
Prior to serving as the NAGP Executive Director, Koch spent 30 years as an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). He has extensive experience implementing Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations on dozens of species throughout the western United States. Koch specifically administered the Lesser Prairie-Chicken program.
“USFWS will make a final decision whether to list the species under the Endangered Species Act any day now. I expect they will basically finalize their proposal to list from last year,” he added.
Historical Range and Population of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC), a stocky, prairie-dwelling grouse with barred feathers, can be found in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. The bird currently occurs on four million acres of land. LPCs require large tracts of intact native prairie and grassland ecosystems to thrive. Shortgrass prairies, sandy soil, shinnery oak, sand sagebrush, and bluestem grasses make up their preferred habitat. Unfortunately, since the 19th century, the species’ native range has shrunk by nearly 90 percent due to habitat loss and fragmentation.
Less than 200 years ago, one million chickens roamed across the plains; currently, there are approximately 27,400. The USFWS divides up their population into two segments: the Northern Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and the Southern DPS. Right now, the agency seeks to classify the northern segment as threatened and the southern segment as endangered. The combination of dwindling numbers and significant habitat loss ultimately led to the endangered listing proposal.
It’s going to take dedication and teamwork to restore the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and their habitat.
Current Issues the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Face
There are a handful of issues negatively affecting Lesser Prairie populations and habitat. First and foremost is habitat loss and fragmentation. Historically, the main cause of habitat loss was the conversion of native grasslands to agricultural land. Today, commercial, residential, and energy development are three major causes of the loss of LPC’s native habitat in Colorado. Homes, businesses, and utility infrastructure are replacing wild prairies and grasslands at alarming rates across the central United States. Energy-based impacts like wildlife exclusion fences, infrastructure like drills and derricks, toxic chemicals, and pollution can harm wildlife in addition to removing and fragmenting habitat. Wildlife may exhibit avoidance behaviors due to increased human activities, too.
Drought is another factor contributing to the LPC’s shrinking suitable habitat, especially in Colorado. The lack of moisture has degraded the bird’s habitat in addition to human development by decreasing the availability of resources. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to exacerbate drought and increase annual temperatures, making it difficult to mitigate this issue.
In Kansas, fragmentation and loss due to agricultural conversion is the culprit. Overgrazing has degraded historial chicken habitat across the bird’s range, too. The confluence of these issues creates a multifaceted conservation challenge for LPCs.
Brief Hunting and Political History of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Prior to the last century, Lesser Prairie-Chickens were a prolific bird across the Great Plains. In 1998, the LPC became a candidate for listing under the ESA. Prior to that year, several states still offered LPC hunting, although they typically had short season dates and small bag limits like in Texas. States lost management authority for the species for the first time in 2014 when USFWS initially listed the species as threatened. However, that decision was vacated in 2015 after a lawsuit.
The following year, a 90-day petition was submitted to USFWS. It requested to list the LPC as endangered. Another 90-day petition the same year found that a listing may actually be warranted. As a result, the two distinct population segments were formed. Wildlife managers could now recommend separate management plans for each DPS, which brings us to today. Having one population listed as threatened and another listed as endangered allows biologists to manage each portion individually.
What does an endangered species listing mean for LPCs and their habitat?
The Endangered Species Act provides programming for threatened and endangered plant and animal conservation and their habitats. The ESA defines endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” An endangered listing means a species receives special protections under the ESA. To be listed as threatened or endangered, a species must be impacted by the following factors:
- The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range
- Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes
- Disease or predation
- The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms
- Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence
ESA listings are solely determined by the best scientific information available. The inclusion of economic factors is prohibited when determining if a species qualifies for a listing. “Political and public opinions are not part of the decision making criteria,” said Koch.
Upland hunters in particular should care about this potential listing. The Endangered Species Act exists to protect at-risk species and the habitats they depend on. Unlike its name, the ESA takes an ecosystem-level approach to the conservation and restoration of wild things, not a species-specific one.
If the LPC is listed as endangered, that means action will be taken to protect its habitat. Native prairie ecosystems, the carbon sequestration they facilitate, the water and air they eliminate contaminants from, and the fellow wildlife species that depend on these resources will all be conserved. This includes native migratory bird species, pollinators, mammals large and small, and more. It’s not just about the LPC; it’s about the larger picture of wildlife and natural resource conservation in North America for future generations.
State Partnerships and Private Landowners Help Conserve LPCs
Thankfully, USFWS isn’t the only group interested in conserving the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico have partnered up to implement the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan. The Plan is voluntary and implements mitigation-based conservation strategies. Administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Plan allows participants to make unavoidable impacts to LPC populations less severe.
The conservation plan also provides financial incentives for private landowners and Lesser Prairie-Chicken management. Ninety-five percent of Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat is privately owned. Any landowner who participates and manages their private property for the benefit of the LPC is able to receive financial and technical assistance when implementing Natural Resources Conservation Service-approved conservation practices. This includes brush management, prescribed grazing, range planting, prescribed burning, and more. The goal of private land management for LPCs is to overturn habitat loss, increasing the carrying capacity, quality, and acreage of the bird’s native habitat.
Is There Hope for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken?
Private landowners have been assisting with LPC conservation for years now. These citizens steward nearly all of the chicken’s native habitat. However, more still needs to be done. Ted Koch proposes that wildlife managers establish a private market-level approach to incentivizing landowners.
30 years ago, a confluence of events moved the needle on LPC conservation. A wheat market crash paired with the prices USDA was paying for enrollment in CRP programs led to an increase in chicken habitat in the southern prairie region. Landowners were getting paid more money to not use their land for wheat production; instead, they planted native grasses and forbs.
Even if that opportunity repeats itself, Koch fears that it will not be enough. “We need a private market approach that pays landowners for all the values they provide Americans,” he said. “If we can use conservation programs to pay landowners, especially with the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization looming, this will be a big deal for the chicken if they can get a program like that up and running.”
“The science and our practical experiences are clear: we know how to act in support of conserving the last remaining prairies and wildlife who call them home. We have the tools available. But we need more strategic, focused, and sufficient funding to assist interested landowners. Let’s work together to ensure our grandchildren can see wild lesser prairie-chickens in wild prairie habitat. They are too important to let slip away.”
– Ted Koch
Folks who want to take action to conserve the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and its native habitats can contact their federal agencies and elected representatives. Koch recommends advocating for paying ranchers fair market values for all the services they provide to the public including carbon sequestration, clean water, and the conservation of wildlife habitat. Requesting for more strategic and efficient implementation of private land conservation programs via federal agencies helps, too. Working with the federal government to find better ways of utilizing existing programs can help mitigate habitat loss.
“There is hope. Even if it calls for new approaches and management tools, we’ve got the willing landowners ready to implement Lesser Prairie-Chicken conservation programs,” stated Koch.
Gabby Zaldumbide is the managing editor of Project Upland. She lives on Colorado's western slope where she teaches hunting, angling, and shooting skills. Gabby has an undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology, a master's in public land management, and an honorary PhD in loving her pets.