Wildlife Management Institute

WMI Outdoor News Bulletin Efforts Underway to Conserve Lesser Prairie Chickens
Efforts Underway to Conserve Lesser Prairie Chickens PDF Print E-mail

image of lesser prairie chicken, Credit: J.N. Stuart, Flickr

Agencies in the five states that are home to the Lesser Prairie Chicken (LPC) have joined forces to develop a conservation plan for the species in an effort to preclude the need for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to the Wildlife Management Institute. Working together under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Western Grassland Initiative (WGI), state and federal agencies hope to have the same outcome of preventing a listing of the LPC that they achieved with black-tailed prairie dogs and swift fox.  Time is limited, but WGI Coordinator Bill Van Pelt of the Arizona Game and Fish Department believes the cooperative effort offers a better way to ensure the future of the LPC than listing under the ESA.

The LPC is a mid-sized member of the grouse family, highly dependent on short- and mixed-grass prairie habitat with a component of shrubs that provide thermal cover.  The conversion of most of its historic range to croplands or pastures planted with non-native grasses, along with periods of drought, greatly reduced LPC numbers and resulted in a fragmented population.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) originally identified LPC as a candidate species for listing under the ESA in 1998.  However, in the 2008 Candidate Notice of Review, the species was elevated in listing priority from an 8 to a 2 based on continued concerns about habitat loss and declining numbers.  In 2011, a federal court ordered the FWS to issue a listing decision by September 2012.

In response to concerns about the bird’s status and the potential for listing, state and federal agencies intensified efforts starting in 2008 to document population size, distribution and trends as well as habitat conditions.  Recent data indicate LPC numbers may be increasing, or shifting northward even in the face of ongoing drought.  Population estimates prior to 1998 indicate that from 1980-1997 LPC numbers were declining at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent.  Since 1998, the population has grown by an average 6.9 percent each year.

Agencies and industry are using the Southern Great Plains Critical Habitat Analysis Tool, or SGP CHAT, developed in cooperation with the Western Governors’ Association, to identify the most important habitat as well as corridors that can maintain connections between LPC populations across the species’ range.  SGP CHAT web service also provides access to other data layers that may be useful for landscape and habitat assessment.  The SGP CHAT page was viewed 1,680 times between November 2011 and March 2012.

Working through the WGI, state fish and wildlife agencies in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico are leading the effort to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy for LPC, similar to the ones developed for black-tailed prairie dogs and swift fox, when those species were candidates for listing.  The conservation strategy will outline the long-term commitment by states to conduct regular aerial surveys to monitor population levels; identify biological parameters to secure LPC populations; identify conservation actions, both current and future, for partner implementation to ensure benefits to LPC; and identify research needs.

The strategy will not be completed in time for the FWS to fully consider it in developing the proposed listing rule in September 2012.  Accordingly, most anticipate the FWS will propose threatened, or potentially even endangered, status for LPC.  The plan will be completed by March 2013, though, so the FWS will be able to consider any new data, conservation actions, and protections offered under the strategy when preparing the final rule, which must be published by September 2013.

WGI Coordinator Bill Van Pelt is optimistic that the new information provided through the process of developing and implementing the strategy will eliminate the need to list the species under the ESA when the final rule is published.  “We’ve succeeded twice before – with black-tailed prairie dogs and swift fox – in building a conservation strategy that doesn’t require the use of the ESA.”  Given that over 95 percent of Lesser Prairie Chicken habitat is on private land, it’s important to landowners that agencies find a way to conserve these birds without the impacts of federal law. (cs)

Follow development of the LPC strategy.