Survey: Prairie chicken population up

 

File photo

The lesser prairie chicken population in eastern New Mexico and surrounding regions continues to increase, a recent survey shows.

An aerial survey done by the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan shows the bird population increased from an estimated 30,000 last year, to almost 39,000 this year.

A 30 percent annual increase has been the norm in recent years.

For Roosevelt County Agriculture Agent Patrick Kircher, the increase is good for ranchers as well as for the birds themselves.

"The chicken's been here for a long time - long before anybody really started worrying about numbers and habitat," Kircher said.

"If the population can figure out how to maintain or grow, there's probably gonna be less push to get it listed as an endangered species. That's good for everybody, because once it reaches a point of being endangered, it really handcuffs what folks can do with their property, because of the chicken."

The lesser prairie chicken in 2014 was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of dwindling numbers. That listing has since been vacated, but the chickens' future remains a concern for environmentalists.

"The main threats facing lesser prairie chickens are habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, agriculture, oil and gas extraction, herbicides, mining and roads, and wind-energy production," according to the Center for Biological Diversity.


Drought has also contributed to declining numbers, once estimated to be in the millions across the Southwest.

The CBD reports the birds' population was at an all-time low - about 17,600 - in 2013 before they began to rebound.

A Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies press release says the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle experienced the biggest annual increase in birds this year, followed by Southeast Colorado and Southwest Kansas.

WAFWA's Chicken Range-wide Plan was specifically developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie chicken. The plan is said to allow for industry to continue operations, while reducing the impact to the bird and its grassland habitat.

To date, industry partners have committed more than $64 million in enrollment and mitigation fees, as landowners across the range have agreed to conserve more than 150,000 acres of habitat, through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.

Kyle Dillard, a Roosevelt County cattle rancher and land leaser, said the success of the chicken population this year can be attributed to a strengthened habitat, and the work that organizations have done to protect the species.

"I think with all the different organizations and programs that are out there, I think we're creating a good habitat," Dillard said. "I think that (the population increase this year) is a sign of having a better habitat and, in turn, I guess it means having better ranching. It all works the same."


Unlike quails, who can adapt to climate conditions, lesser prairie chickens rely solely on the month of May to produce their necessary numbers. According to Kircher, environmental conditions have to be just right to raise chicks.

The mortality rate means that the lesser prairie chickens struggle to survive from year-to-year, meaning that a down year can damage the population, and increase the likelihood of becoming endangered.

WAFWA's report expresses concern that the numbers could see a downturn next year, due to severe droughts in the region. However, Kircher said that a single year alone won't have a long-term impact on the birds.

"You're gonna get year to year variations, but it's not gonna be one year that changes the tide of things," Kircher said. "That's gonna be more of a multiple year pattern-type situation that builds and creates a long-term impact for the communities around."

 

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