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Survey Shows Growth in Lesser Prairie Chicken Population

The latest airel survey found that the range-wide population of Lesser Prairie Chickens has increased by about 20%.

Read full article here (Odessa American)

"An aerial survey showed the lesser prairie-chicken’s range-wide population increased about 20 percent from last year to an estimated 22,415 birds, according to a release from Bill Val Pelt, grassland coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Range Wide Plan, a five-state conservation effort.

The population growth encouraged wildlife biologists but Van Pelt cautioned that the increase likely represents a natural fluctuation mostly attributed to rainfall’s influence on grassland habitat conditions.

“Just as with last year’s population decrease, we shouldn’t read too much into short-term fluctuations over one or two years,” said Van Pelt in the statement. “What these numbers show is the importance of maintaining good prairie habitat. Increased rainfall led to improved habitat in part of the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, allowing populations to respond to better conditions. . .”

The increase was not spread evenly across the grouse’s four habitat regional in five states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma in Texas. In fact, the survey showed “significant” population declines in the sand sagebrush region of southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and the northwestern Oklahoma Panhandle — areas that continued to suffer from drought.

The bird’s numbers increased in the range encompassing the Texas Panhandle, northwestern Oklahoma and south central Kansas. The stated goal is to bring the population back to about 67,000 birds from less than a third of that.

This was the third helicopter survey of the lesser-prairie chicken, and it was performed by West Ecosystems of Laramie, Wyo.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser-prairie chicken as “threatened” in March, a decision that has proven controversial. That designation, a step below “endangered,” allows more flexibility in protection efforts.

Fish and Wildlife included an exemption to allow the five states to continue managing the WAFWA, which allows companies operating in the bird’s habitats remain in compliancy by enrolling to pay fees used to offset chicken deaths or disturbances to their habitat by routing that money for conservation efforts.  

But the exemption drew attacks from New Mexico counties and oil industry groups such as the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, who argue the listing went too far. Meanwhile environmental groups argue the listing did not go far enough.

Both sides have filed federal lawsuits contesting the Fish and Wildlife decision."