Aerial Surveys Confirm Lesser Prairie-Chicken Population Holding Steady

Results are in for the 2017 lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey, and they’ve brought welcome news. The survey indicates an estimated breeding population of 33,269 birds this year, up from 24,648 birds counted last year. Though scientists are encouraged by the numbers, they know that year-to-year fluctuations are the norm with upland birds like the lesser prairie-chicken.

Male lesser prairie-chicken flying from a Kansas lek. Photo David Haukos.

“The survey results indicate a 34% increase in the number of birds, but we don’t read too much into short-term population fluctuations,” explained Roger Wolfe, Lesser Prairie-chicken Program Manager for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), the organization that oversees the survey.

“The monitoring technique used for this survey is designed to track trends, which more accurately reflect the amount of available habitat and population stability,” said Wolfe. “The bottom line is that the population trend over the last five years indicates a stable population, which is good news for all involved in lesser prairie-chicken conservation efforts.”

Manuel DeLeon, acting coordinator of the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), welcomed the news, noting the essential nature of partnership and collaboration in the process of recovering lesser prairie-chicken populations.

“Moving forward depends on all the collective efforts undertaken to maintain and improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat,” said DeLeon. “LPCI is one cog in the wheel working to help ranchers improve their operations while also improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat.”

LPCI partners with WAFWA to carry out habitat conservation to meet the population recovery goals of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan, which was developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry.

Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit four ecoregions in the southern Great Plains, including portions of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Their populations regularly fluctuate up and down from year to year due to changes in habitat conditions, mainly influenced by weather patterns. The surveys this year indicated apparent population increases in three of the four ecoregions, with an apparent decrease estimated in the fourth ecoregion.

Lesser prairie-chicken nest with hatched eggs. Photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

The short-grass prairie ecoregion of northwest Kansas saw the biggest apparent annual increase in birds, followed by the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas. The sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas also registered an apparent annual increase in the number of breeding birds. An apparent annual population decline was noted in the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.

LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen noted that the trends are encouraging, especially on the heels of the extreme drought of 2012-13 and the mega-wildfires that have blazed across hundreds of thousands of acres of prairie-chicken habitat during the past two years.

“While the fire will help the prairies and lesser prairie-chickens in the long run by removing and reducing eastern redcedar, the short term post-fire effects are not well understood,” said Hagen. “To show stable populations in the wake of drought and fire, I believe, speaks volumes about the continued conservation efforts occurring across throughout their distribution range.”

Wolfe noted that, like all wildlife, the health of lesser prairie-chickens is greatly affected by the weather. “The aerial surveys this year were taken before the late spring snowstorm blasted through much of the bird’s range, just prior to the peak of nest incubation,” said Wolfe. “We’ll know more about the impact of that weather event after aerial surveys are completed next year.”

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.