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Lesser Prairie Chicken Numbers Plummet in 2016

Declining Populations Demonstrate Clear Need for Federal Protections

SANTA FE, NM – Populations of the rare lesser prairie chicken declined over the past year, bringing the imperiled birds closer to extinction. The estimated worldwide population dropped by almost 4,000 birds from 29,162 birds in 2015 to 25,261 birds remaining in the wild in 2016, reversing two years of population gains. The decline, documented by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), comes despite promises by state and local governments and industry to preserve the bird.

“Today, fewer of these rare birds exist in the entire world than people in Garden City, Kansas,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “Habitat destruction continues, and voluntary conservation programs aren’t getting the job done: this bird need the protections of the Endangered Species Act now.”

The colorful prairie bird is famous for its ritual mating dance punctuated by booming, gobbles, and foot-stamping. The lesser prairie chicken faces threats from habitat fragmentation and destruction from oil and gas drilling, wind farm development, and conversion of grasslands to irrigated cropland. Overgrazing by domestic livestock is also a major cause of population declines because it denudes important hiding cover for nesting hens and their chicks. 

In response to low population numbers and ongoing threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, but a federal judge in Texas vacated the listing decision a year later on procedural grounds. Today, energy development and conversion of native habitat to agricultural cropland continue to carve up lesser prairie chicken habitat. State governments proposed voluntary conservation plans to protect key habitats, but as the struggling population numbers show, the amount of land enrolled in these programs is falling far short of the bird’s needs.

“The promises of voluntary conservation plans from the states, counties and industry have proven ineffectual,” said Molvar. “This decline shows that lesser prairie chickens are not rebounding and is proof positive that Endangered Species Act protections are essential to prevent the extinction of this magnificent bird.”

The birds inhabit four ecologically distinct regions in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and southeastern Colorado. In two—the sand sage prairies of Colorado and Oklahoma and the shinnery oak prairies of the Texas-New Mexico border—populations are small and isolated. These populations experienced a minor uptick this spring. But increasingly, protracted droughts and climate change induced heat waves are rendering the Southern Plains grasslands uninhabitable for lesser prairie chicken. During one 2011 heat wave, ground temperatures in New Mexico surpassed 130°F, hot enough to kill lesser prairie chicken eggs, according to scientific studies. In 2012 the bird’s numbers hit record lows, partly as a result of heat and drought.


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