Alisa Opar
Published: 11/30/2012

Photo courtesy USDA

The lesser prairie chicken—known for its flamboyant courtship behavior, where the fellas display brilliant yellow eyecombs and red air sacs as they dance about—took center stage today when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposed listing it as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The bird has suffered an 84% decline in the five states where it lives: Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. 


"The alarm has been sounded,” says Mike Daulton, Audubon’s vice president of government relations. “This bird and its vital grassland habitat are in serious trouble.”


The potential listing is a “call for action" for states, landowners, ranchers and energy companies to work together to conserve its habitat, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told Greenwire. The 90-day public comment period will begin in the coming weeks, with a final decision likely by September.


Ashe compared the lesser prairie chicken to the dunes sagebrush lizard, which narrowly avoided an endangered listing in June after federal, state and private landowners agreed—voluntarily—to conserve the shinnery oak dune habitat it depends on.


“We applaud the leadership and conservation investments from state and federal conservation agencies and in particular the NRCS,” Daulton says. “But we need more help for this bird and we need it now."


Working with private landowners is essential, Ted Williams reported in "Free-Range Chickens" for Audubon magazine: “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.”


Williams paints a wonderful description of the “first lesser prairie chicken copulation of 2011.” He also delves into the efforts of Audubon Texas, Audubon New Mexico, and The Nature Conservancy, who work with private landowners, and makes the case for science-based energy development that doesn’t threaten the bird or its critical habitat.


After all, he says, “Perhaps the most valuable tool is the Endangered Species Act—not for enforcement, because the species isn’t listed, but as an incentive for habitat maintenance and restoration.”  (Read the story here.)