Author Archives: LPCI

Lesser Prairie-Chickens Return to the Leks

By Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales, NM

Out on the seemingly endless prairie, lesser prairie-chickens are stirring. Driven by an unknown force, they travel to a place that some of them have never been, but which they still somehow know.  Each year as winter’s veil is cast aside, male lesser prairie-chickens gather on their ancestral breeding grounds, known as leks, to bow and cackle, jump and fight and kick, and show off their ornaments in a bid to attract females.

Where did they spend the winter, and what did they do there? Though most research has shown that lesser prairie-chickens generally don’t travel more than a few miles from their chosen lek, you can spend days on end wandering through the grasslands in fall and winter and never catch a glimpse of one, even if you know the locations of the leks.

Male lesser prairie-chicken on the lek, March 22, 2015. photo Amy Erickson

Male lesser prairie-chicken on the lek, March 22, 2015. photo Amy Erickson

But as spring arrives, so do the prairie-chickens. Males usually return to the same leks year after year, and the females follow. What drives them to return to the same leks, and how do they recognize the location a year later—a site that often doesn’t appear (to us) much different from the surrounding landscape? How do juveniles know where to go and what to do during their first spring? Somehow they do know, and they arrive at the lek to dance or to watch the dance—likely the same lek where they themselves were conceived.

What makes a good lek? From the male’s perspective, it’s all about seeing and being seen. A lek is usually an area of low vegetation surrounded by taller grasses and shrubs suitable for nesting. A female prairie-chicken needs access to multiple habitat types within a few square miles in order to successfully raise her young, and a lek amid prime habitat will surely be most attractive to females. The vegetation on the lek must be short so the males can show off their vivid red air sacs, their tall yellow combs, and their long neck feathers, called “pinnae”. The female chooses a male based on his looks and his dance, as well as his ability to fight off rival males.

Prairie-chickens and so many other wildlife species depend on local ranchers and landowners, since most of their habitat is on private land. When ranches and open spaces are managed with wildlife in mind, everybody wins.  I feel fortunate to be part of an organization that works so hard to benefit landowners, the community, the ranching way of life, and wildlife.

Watching prairie-chickens on the lek is something I wish everyone could experience. I hope that in a hundred years people will still  see lesser prairie-chickens dancing in springtime on the High Plains, and ranchers will still be here taking care of the land. Collaborative conservation can make that happen.

Photo of lesser prairie-chicken. Laura Erickson

Industry Funds Fuel Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation Partnership

LAS VEGAS, NV – At its winter meeting in Las Vegas, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) announced plans to allocate $445,000 to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative partnership to expand habitat conservation efforts for the federally listed lesser prairie-chicken.

Photo of lesser prairie-chicken. Laura Erickson

Lesser prairie-chicken (Laura Erickson photo)

Once abundant across the Southern Great Plains, lesser prairie-chicken populations have declined sharply, largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May, 2014.

Launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) offers financial and technical support to ranchers and farmers who voluntarily enhance lesser prairie-chicken habitat on their agricultural lands.

Critical to that conservation effort are the LPCI-funded field staff who work one-on-one with landowners to provide conservation planning, technical support, and habitat monitoring on enrolled lands. NRCS partners with several organizations and agencies to fund these field positions, collectively known as the Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT).

WAFWA has committed $222,500 a year over the next two years to the SWAT program. The Initiative will utilize the funding to hire new field staff in critical habitat regions of the five states that comprise the lesser prairie-chicken’s range—Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

SWAT field staff will, in turn, expand their services to deliver conservation planning and monitoring for both WAFWA and NRCS conservation programs that benefit lesser prairie-chickens.

According to Jon Ungerer, LPCI Coordinator, WAFWA’s funding will greatly strengthen the LPCI partnership. “Currently, LPCI and WAFWA offer closely aligned conservation programs and assistance. This partnership combines rangeland expertise of NRCS with wildlife expertise of the five-state fish and wildlife agencies.”

He continues, “With this funding, we can provide one-stop shopping for landowners and streamline services by merging technical assistance for WAFWA and NRCS programs aimed at conserving lesser prairie-chicken habitat.”

WAFWA’s funding stems from a mitigation program established through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan (RWP), which WAFWA oversees. Industries with developments within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range pay a mitigation fee to provide habitat conservation for the chicken.

To date, industry enrollment and mitigation fees have amounted to more than $37 million, which WAFWA has placed in an endowment to support habitat conservation measures on private lands in the lesser prairie-chicken’s range.

Ross Melinchuk, Chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Council, describes the win-win nature of their financial commitment, “Our expanded partnership with NRCS through the SWAT program magnifies our ability to deliver lesser prairie-chicken conservation to private landowners in a timely and cost-effective manner.”

The RWP offers agricultural landowners and operators financial assistance for a number of voluntary management options, ranging from habitat improvement practices to conservation easements.

With the 2014 listing of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, many landowners have expressed concern about how ESA regulations might affect their agricultural operations.

Ungerer explains, “This partnership provides landowners with the planning assistance they need to receive Endangered Species Act protections when implementing their conservation plans, and the ability to utilize their plan whether they choose to enroll in an NRCS or WAFWA financial assistance program or not.”

Photo of lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background, photo credit: Laura Erickson

Lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background. Laura Erickson photo.


Sandra Murphy, Communications Specialist
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative
928-380-9489 (cell)

Just Add Water: Prairie Vegetation Responds to Rain

Note from LPCI: Jake Swafford wrote this field report late last summer, before LPCI had a website on which to share it. It captures so vividly the on-the-ground experience of the life-giving rains that returned last summer that we wanted to share it with you on our newly launched website.

Who knew — the recipe for grass requires rain. It’s as though Eastern New Mexico had everything prepped and ready just waiting for the drought to end. Since the rain started I have watched the surrounding land explode with life, as if the instructions read “just add water.”

New Mexico prairie. Andy Lawrence photo

New Mexico prairie. Andy Lawrence photo

I have been working in New Mexico for just a little over two years now, and this is the first time I’ve seen things really grow. Being a wildlife biologist I have the privilege of spending most days outdoors, traveling all over eastern New Mexico, seeing public and private land. The past month in the field has convinced me that management on the ground is headed in the right direction. The drought made it hard to see positive results of conservation projects, but now that we have some rain, the landowners’ hard work is apparent.

I’ve seen grasses this summer that make me feel like I’m back home in the tall grass prairie of Missouri, huge bunches of grasses and plants I barely recognize because I’ve never seen them that tall. The rain is bringing out the true nature of New Mexico’s grasslands.

The moisture also is demonstrating the true potential for wildlife in this area. I have seen more coveys of scaled quail this year than I have since moving to New Mexico. Rabbits seem to have sprouted from the ground along with the grass. The biggest change I’ve noticed in wildlife populations has been an explosion of insects. While these bugs can be annoying for those of us who work outdoors, they are a key component for supporting other wildlife. They even pollinate many of the grasses and flowers that create beautiful landscapes and habitat for our favorite animals.

The rains provide much needed relief to farmers and ranchers in the area who have been making the best of a tough couple of years. I hope eastern New Mexico is lucky enough to have several more years of much needed rain, and that its landowners are prepared to make the best of the next tough times.

Jake Swafford is an LPCI Farm Bill wildlife biologist. You can reach him at or at (575) 201-8117.