Aerial surveys document stable Lesser Prairie-chicken population trends
Biologists note annual population fluctuations, emphasize value of improved habitat
The latest lesser prairie-chicken survey shows bird population trends remain stable after five years of aerial survey data collection. The surveys indicated an estimated breeding population of 25,261 birds this year which scientists say is not significantly different from the 29,162 birds estimated in 2015 given the variability in the survey methodology. This spring’s breeding population remains significantly larger than the 17,616 birds that were estimated in 2013 following two years of severe drought.
Lesser-prairie chickens can be found in four ecoregions in five states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Wildlife biologists note prairie chicken numbers regularly fluctuate up and down from year to year due to changes in habitat conditions mainly influenced by rainfall patterns. The surveys this year indicated apparent population increases in the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle and the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas. The lesser prairie-chicken populations in these regions experienced the most decline as a result of the 2011-2012 drought. Population decreases were observed in the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas, and the short-grass prairie region of northwest Kansas.
“Just as with last year’s population increase, we shouldn’t read too much into short-term fluctuations over one or two years,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator. “The monitoring technique used for this survey is designed to track trends, and both the three and five-year trends still indicate a stable population. Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit a large geographic landscape with highly variable weather patterns, so we expect to see annual and regional population fluctuations. What these numbers show is the importance of maintaining good prairie habitat for long-term population stability. Populations have responded positively in recent years to increased and timely rainfall in portions of the bird’s range most affected by the 2011-2012 drought. Specifically, the population has significantly increased over the last three years in the sand sagebrush ecoregion. Voluntary conservation efforts like the range-wide plan help to ensure that suitable habitat is available so these population increases can occur when weather conditions are suitable.”
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA and state wildlife agencies of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. It was developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry. The plan allows industry to continue operations while reducing and mitigating impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat. Industry contributions support conservation actions implemented by participating private landowners. To date, industry partners have committed over $60 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve over 130,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.
“With continued improvement in nesting and brood-rearing habitat associated with good weather conditions and private landowner conservation actions, we are optimistic about the lesser prairie-chicken’s future,” said Alexa Sandoval, chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “Habitat conservation and species recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. We appreciate the continued commitment of all of our partners in our ongoing conservation efforts.”
WAFWA news releases available at http://www.wafwa.org/news/
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan can be found HERE
Since 1922, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has advanced conservation in western North America. Representing 23 western states and Canadian provinces, WAFWA’s reach encompasses more than 40 percent of North America, including two-thirds of the United States. Drawing on the knowledge of scientists across the West, WAFWA is recognized as the expert source for information and analysis about western wildlife. WAFWA supports sound resource management and building partnerships at all levels to conserve native wildlife for the use and benefit of all citizens, now and in the future.