Lesser prairie chickens are almost cooked. But in the West, sensible planning and healthy partnerships hold promise--if Americans would only abandon their current policy of wind, oil, and gas development anywhere, at any cost.
Grisham ordered us not to speak or get too close. He tied on the radio collar, Superglued on purple, green, and orange plastic leg bands, and pinched on an aluminum one. He weighed her--750 grams (about a pound and a half), indicating good health. Finally, he took a blood sample to measure lipids (another health indicator) and check for West Nile virus. The disease has been showing up in lesser prairie chickens, but they seem to be beating it.
Beside this lek was a circular water tank filled by a submersible, solar-powered pump. "Lesser prairie chickens do not require open water. Water requirements are met by the consumption of succulent vegetation, insects, and dew, except in periods of drought, when water from stock ponds and prairie streams may be used." That proclamation (by the Oklahoma State University's Cooperative Extension Service) echoes a theory defended, often adamantly, since the 1960s.
But with colored leg band combinations (by which individuals can be identified) and remote video cameras set up on some 15 water tanks on the Yoakum Dunes Preserve and surrounding ranches, Grisham and Borsdorf have gathered evidence that the theory is bunk. So far they have photos of 800 instances of chickens coming to water. There have been no visits by hens during July, August, and September (the hottest, driest months). In fact, 87 percent of the hen visits have been recorded in April and May, during egg development. Formation of an average clutch of 10 eggs requires about a cup and a half of water, a tremendous amount for a prairie chicken. What's more, many natural springs, including all the ones on the preserve, have dried up. There is no better example of how recovery of a species depends on field research--in this case funded by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with logistical support from Texas Tech, the U.S. Geological Survey, and a new partnership organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative.
Another myth debunked by fieldwork is the notion that lesser prairie chickens require sandy soils. "We've found chickens even on tight soils that support mixed grass or taller grasses," says Sean Kyle, panhandle biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "I don't think there was enough habitat to support them on just the sandy soils for the numbers they used to see."
Then there's the old saw, still being promoted by a number of environmental groups based in the West, that cattle grazing inevitably destroys fish and wildlife habitat and needs to be banned from public land. But lesser prairie chickens depend on cattle grazing, as I learned when I toured the ranches surrounding Yoakum Dunes with Pena, Stockdale, Kyle, and Duane Lucia, a panhandle biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Overgrazing degrades chicken habitat, taking out residual cover, but that doesn't happen much these days, at least in these parts. Cattle grazing that mimics the past grazing of bison produces more seeds, insects, and other important prairie chicken food than ungrazed or heavily grazed land. "Pretty much all Great Plains wildlife requires disturbance," remarked Kyle. "That wildlife evolved with millions of bison and a lot of fire. Prairie chickens can do well with cattle."
Without moderate disturbance grasslands are quickly invaded by trees like mesquite and eastern red cedar. Not only do trees provide perches and nesting sites for predators, they shade out forbs and grasses and fill in leks, making courtship impossible. Shinnery oak is a component of good chicken habitat because it provides heat protection and acorns, an important food source. But even shinnery oak can get too high and too thick. And tree invasion is being exacerbated by human suppression of wildfire.
The birds on the 7,200-acre Yoakum Dunes Preserve would not be doing so well--in fact, might not even be there--without the well-managed ranches that surround it and which bring total habitat to something like 30,000 acres. The Nature Conservancy is even planning to bring cattle onto the preserve itself.
The problem isn't too much grazing, it's not enough of it. As it is, Lucia has to do prescribed burns and herbicide treatments. About 98 percent of Texas is privately owned, and in the lesser prairie chicken's five-state range the figure is something like 70 percent. This means that without landowner cooperation in habitat maintenance and restoration, the species hasn't got much of a chance.
But in all five states, that cooperation is happening. Prescribed burns, herbiciding, water-source development, and other ranching improvements that benefit both cattle and chickens are being funded by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), via EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) and WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program), and by the Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Wildlife program. What's more, the NRCS has just initiated a multi-agency partnership called the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation Initiative that will intensify and streamline this effort by identifying what good prairie chicken habitat looks like and by providing increased financial and logistical assistance to landowners to help them create it.
At one ranch we inspected a new grassland that contrasted sharply with the woody scrub on the opposite side of the road. Lucia's and Kyle's agencies had created it by herbiciding out the mesquite, and prairie chickens had promptly moved in. "Every year we've treated farther north," declared Lucia. Presently he pointed to a patch of prairie that, despite a few small trees, looked plenty birdy to me. "We treated that piece four or five years ago," he said, "and birds won't go into it anymore." Keeping lesser prairie chickens on the landscape is never-ending, expensive work.