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.
Audubon New Mexico's Stockdale agrees that listing is not always the best way to recover a species. But she makes this point: "Habitat continues to be fragmented and converted to other uses, and chicken numbers continue to decline. When you have a species like this, which covers parts of five states, it seems that having a federal agency to oversee and coordinate recovery will be helpful. But the Fish and Wildlife Service can't recover the species alone. Much will depend on state wildlife agencies."
Few people want lesser prairie chickens declared threatened or endangered. Kyle, Lucia, Pena, and Stockdale don't want listing because it would mean they've failed in their recovery efforts. Wind, oil, and gas developers and the politicians they finance don't want listing because they imagine it will impede profit making. On June 8, 2011, in one of the more brazen attacks on the Endangered Species Act, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) offered an amendment that would block the Fish and Wildlife Service from ever using the act to protect lesser prairie chickens. And Republican representatives Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Michael Conaway, Randy Neugebauer, and Francisco Canseco of Texas have proposed stripping Fish and Wildlife Service of funding for listing the bird.
If the bird does get listed, there will be lots more federal dollars for recovery. If it doesn't, ongoing efforts of federal and state managers like Lucia and Kyle, assisted by the outreach, lobbying, and habitat work of organizations like Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, may still save it.
I left Texas with a better feeling about the future of lesser prairie chickens than I'd had when I arrived. But I watched the weather with increasing alarm. From Pena, Stockdale, and other friends in the Southwest I knew about the severe heat and drought. I wasn't expecting good news about nesting when I phoned Blake Grisham on June 8, nor did I get it. Nesting had been a complete bust. Of 17 radio-collared hens, only three initiated nests, and all abandoned them in about a day.
Yet Grisham sounded strangely upbeat. Dry, hot weather happens, and prairie wildlife evolved with it. Moreover, the nest failures had provided important information. When prairie chickens are stressed by heat they lower their body temperature by rapidly flapping their throat membranes to increase evaporation. The cameras had recorded this "gullar fluttering" and correlated timelines with data from temperature and humidity sensors in each nest.
Plus, good brood years often follow poor ones. For example, 2009 had been something of bust, too. But 2010 had been excellent.
Like all wildlife, lesser prairie chickens can deal with limiting factors nature confronts them with. But what about the factors humans confront them with? In Texas I'd seen proof that the species is a survivor that can tough out horrific habitat destruction--provided humans give it a few chances like the ones I saw happening. If those chances keep coming and if America embraces a new energy policy that isn't ruinously expensive in our most beautiful and valuable assets, lesser prairie chickens will have a range-wide future like the one they have at Yoakum Dunes.