THIRD RANGE-WIDE LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN AERIAL SURVEY BEING CONDUCTED
March 27, 2014
Survey monitors lesser prairie-chicken population across five states
LUBBOCK – This month, wildlife experts are starting the third annual helicopter survey to assess lesser prairie-chicken populations across the bird’s range, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). The historic first-ever, large-scale helicopter survey of lesser prairie-chicken breeding areas, or leks, across the species’ five-state range occurred March-May 2012. The survey area encompassed more than 300,000 square miles and detected several previously unknown leks, despite severe drought conditions. Survey teams also detected leks in Kansas beyond what was thought to be the northern extent of the bird’s historic range.
The 2013 range-wide survey revealed population estimates of 17,616, down from the 34,440 birds estimated the first year in 2012. The population decrease was predicted by biologists because of the persistent drought that has plagued the region in recent years.
Lesser prairie-chicken populations have historically fluctuated due to weather and habitat conditions. In fact, populations were so low during the droughts in the 1930s and 1950s, biologists feared the species was almost extinct. However, when the rains returned, the populations rebounded.
Bird numbers have been largely increasing in Kansas for the last 15 years, while populations have declined in parts of the southern portion of the range. Some biologists believe this northward expansion may represent a shift in the population of the species caused by climatic conditions associated with changing precipitation patterns.
“Besides rain, what will really help are the on-the-ground conservation efforts we’re putting in place with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator. Van Pelt noted how the five-state plan provides ways for industry to be supportive and landowners to enroll in voluntary conservation agreements.
The range-wide plan includes management goals and voluntary conservation programs and practices to be applied throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. The final plan was endorsed last October by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been considering whether to list the species as threatened. An announcement on the final listing decision is expected by March 31.
Aerial surveys will continue through mid-May, extending from the southern plains of the Texas Panhandle and southeast New Mexico up to northern Kansas and Colorado. Surveys will be flown at 35-40 mph about 80 feet above ground. Pilots involved have extensive experience conducting aerial surveys and will make a special effort to avoid hazing livestock on pastures.
Anyone can learn more about the range-wide plan and options for landowners and industry on the WAFWA website.