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.
It was the best dance I'd ever attended. On any other occasion, Dan Snodgrass, a regional land manager for The Nature Conservancy, and I would have gladly risen to lead Iliana Pena, director of conservation for Audubon Texas, and Karyn Stockdale, executive director of Audubon New Mexico, onto the dance floor. But on this frigid April pre-dawn an hour west of Lubbock, Texas, we just sat there, whispering.
The dancers, a mere 100 feet away, were lesser prairie chickens, endangered in fact if not by federal decree. A 1995 petition to provide protection under the Endangered Species Act elicited a proclamation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, three years later, that listing was "warranted but precluded." Basically that translates to "we're too busy and too poor to do anything about this." So lesser prairie chickens got consigned to a statutory purgatory called "candidate species," which provides no legal protection but considerable resources for recovery.
Before we could see the birds, we heard them--an insectlike buzz, progressing to rattles, gobbles, clucks, and churs. As false dawn smudged the dance floor, or "lek," we could make out the round forms of males as they sparred, stamped, drooped their wings, bowed, jumped, and fluttered. Soon we could see the dust they were kicking up and their raised tails and erect pinnae (the neck feathers that make them look like rabbits). Finally, as the sun bulged out of the eastern horizon, we saw their inflated maroon neck pouches and the yellow patches above their eyes. They were smaller than I had expected, about a foot long, the size of the ruffed grouse I share my Yankee woodlot with.
Birds sailed in from all compass points until there were 17, some so close we could see their colored leg bands. Three perched on the chicken-wire traps set up the day before by researchers Blake Grisham and Phil Borsdorf, graduate students at Texas Tech University's Department of Natural Resources Management. Other birds pushed against and followed the wire fence designed to guide them into the traps, but eventually they turned away.
A muffled cheer arose from Grisham's truck. They were celebrating the first lesser prairie chicken copulation of 2011--a successful one because the hen ruffled her feathers and flew off the lek. In the brightening air the birds faded fairylike into the grass, sage, and shinnery oaks. Lark buntings flitted across the lek, and in the distance harriers dipped and wobbled over this tiny island of native prairie--the Yoakum Dunes Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy.
A top priority for Pena and Stockdale will be setting up Globally Important Bird Areas for lesser prairie chickens. No GIBA has yet been designated, but in May 2011 the Texas IBA Technical Committee approved Pena's application for Yoakum Dunes Preserve, and at this writing it's being reviewed by the national committee. (State and national committees consist of bird experts selected by Audubon.) "We want to get as many GIBAs as possible because we think they'll hold weight for developers, especially wind developers," she said.
The wind binge hasn't hit this part of Texas yet, but it's a major threat in five northern counties that lie within the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones established by the Texas Public Utilities Commission for wind development. Huge double-circuit, 345-kilo-volt power lines are already going up to support that development. Prairie chickens evolved in the absence of trees, so they avoid vertical structures. The turbines are bad enough, but the transmission lines are worse because raptors and corvids, major predators, roost and nest on the poles. Wind power is no less a threat in other states.
I could see why GIBA designation is important. To the southeast, east, and northeast, amid a tangle of power lines, oil pump jacks pecked the earth. To the south and west center-pivot irrigators rose above bare cotton fields that spat dirt into the Texas wind, and where cotton stopped, sorghum started. Similar habitat destruction and fragmentation are happening elsewhere in the state and in the rest of the bird's range--Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
It's not clear if lesser prairie chickens once occurred outside these five states, mostly because of early confusion with greater prairie chickens. While greaters are slightly larger and more restricted to taller grasses, they share some range with lessers and are so closely related they'll occasionally hybridize with them. But Texas is thought to have been the center of lesser prairie chicken distribution, with perhaps two million birds. Today it probably has no more than 6,000 and possibly as few as 3,000.
From 1963 to 1980 habitat in the five states declined 78 percent, to 10,500 square miles. While there has been recovery since, there are new and ever more damaging sources of habitat destruction and fragmentation, such as the wind-power craze, the gas-and-oil rush, and lavishly subsidized corn-ethanol production. Without major habitat protection and restoration, the species appears doomed.
But just such habitat work is under way. Whether it will be enough or in time remains to be seen.
While the morning had been better than anything I could have expected, I was disappointed that we hadn't caught a bird in one of the traps. Snodgrass started his truck, and we followed Grisham and Borsdorf west on the dirt road. To the north six mule deer trotted casually away. As we came abreast of another lek, Grisham and Borsdorf piled out of the truck, hitting the ground on a dead run. A prairie chicken was in one of the traps, and it was a hen--the 10th that would be banded and radio-collared in 2011.