The latest lesser prairie chicken survey shows population trends remain stable after six years of aerial survey data collection, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). The survey indicates an estimated breeding population of 33,269 birds this year, up from 25,261 birds counted last year. Though scientists are encouraged by the numbers, they know year-to-year fluctuations are the norm with upland birds like the lesser prairie chicken.
“The survey results indicate a 32 percent increase in the number of birds over last year, but we don’t read too much into short-term population fluctuations,” explained Roger Wolfe, WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie Chicken Program manager.
“The monitoring technique used for this survey is designed to track trends, which more accurately reflect the amount of available habitat and population stability,” Wolfe said. “The bottom line is that the population trend over the last six years indicates a stable population, which is good news for all involved in lesser prairie chicken conservation efforts.”
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 fluctuate annually due to changes in habitat conditions, which are mainly influenced by weather patterns. The surveys this year indicated apparent population increases in three of the four ecoregions and rangewide, with a decrease estimated in the fourth ecoregion.
The shortgrass prairie ecoregion of northwest Kansas saw the biggest increase in birds, followed by the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion of the northeast Texas Panhandle, northwest Oklahoma and southcentral Kansas. The sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas also registered an increase in the number of breeding birds. An apparent population decline was noted in the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.
“We’d also like to point out that the aerial surveys this year were taken before a late spring snowstorm blasted through a portion of the bird’s range, just prior to the peak of nest incubation,” said Wolfe. “Like all wildlife, the health of these birds depends on the weather. Rainfall at the right time means healthy habitat for the birds, and heavy wet snow like we saw in late April can have a negative impact on survival and productivity. We’ll know more about the impact of that weather event after aerial surveys are completed next year.”
The Lesser Prairie Chicken Rangewide Plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA and the 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 more than $63 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve more than 145,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.