Report: Rare chicken's numbers on the decline

June 10, 2008 5:18:17 PM PDT
Lesser prairie chickens have been reduced to a fraction of their population across five states, says a conservation group that is ratcheting up the pressure on the federal government to provide more protection for the rare bird.

Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the lesser prairie chicken's designation as a candidate for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act. WildEarth Guardians used the anniversary to release a report showing the bird's decline in northeastern and southeastern New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

"It's been 10 years to the day that the Fish and Wildlife Service had admitted that it needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act. But here we are 10 years later without any formal legal protections under this law for this rare and declining bird," said Nicole Rosmarino, director of the Santa Fe-based group's wildlife program.

Lesser prairie chickens are round, stocky, ground-dwelling birds. Males inflate pouches of skin on the side of their necks during courtship, a display that has become the centerpiece of an annual festival near the eastern New Mexico town of Milnesand.

As the birds' population continues to decline, conservationists worry that the chance for birders to see the courtship could become a thing of the past.

Rosmarino believes the bird's future is bleak unless Fish and Wildlife decides to list it as either threatened or endangered.

"We're hoping to keep up the pressure to show that the lesser prairie chicken just can't be put in purgatory and forgotten," Rosmarino said. "It needs to be protected because those protections would be very meaningful for stemming the threats that it is currently facing."

According to the report, the range of the lesser prairie chicken - an indicator species for the southern Plains - has been reduced by more than 90 percent and its population has declined by 97 percent since the 1800s.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not have funding this fiscal year for the studies necessary for proposing a listing, but staff biologists have been keeping an eye on the bird, as have landowners and other agencies, said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman in the service's Albuquerque office.

Slown pointed to various projects aimed at helping the species, including putting markers on fence lines to prevent the chickens from crashing into barbed wire fences.

Fish and Wildlife also works with the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to promote cooperative agreements with landowners to ensure prairie chicken habitat is conserved.

"There are a lot of people out there who have taken steps to help with the prairie chickens," Slown said.

However, conservation groups say recent evidence shows the lesser prairie chicken has suffered serious declines due to habitat loss and fragmentation; grazing; oil, gas and wind energy development; herbicide use; and drought. They say climate change could exacerbate those threats.

Even though the bird is a candidate for the federal Endangered Species list, New Mexico officials have been reluctant to say the bird is on the brink. In 2006, the state Game Commission declined to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened or endangered.

This year, surveys show the population is apparently holding steady in New Mexico.

Game and Fish lesser prairie chicken biologist Grant Beauprez said the department's spring survey found that nearly 7,000 birds were counted. He said that number could rise once surveys done on BLM and private lands are added. Last year's population was estimated at 6,300 birds.

Still, WildEarth Guardians contends the grouse is facing new and increasing threats and that many populations have continued to decline since 1998. Its report warns that the bird may be lost in the five states.

"It's important to underscore that it isn't in good shape anywhere," Rosmarino said. "Populations that remain are much reduced from their historic numbers."