This month wildlife experts are starting the third annual helicopter survey to assess lesser prairie-chicken populations across the bird's range in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado.
The historic first effort to conduct a large-scale, helicopter-based survey to locate lesser prairie-chicken breeding areas or leks across the High Plains region in all five states occurred March-May 2012 and encompassed more than 300,000 square miles. Several previously unknown leks were detected, despite severe drought across the region. Survey teams also detected leks in Kansas beyond what was thought to be the northern extent of the bird's historic range.
Last year's 2013 range-wide survey revealed population estimates of 17,616, down from the 34,440 birds estimated 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 fluctuated historically 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 is on-the-ground conservation efforts we're putting in place with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan," said Bill Van Pelt, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 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 is expected to announce a listing decision by March 31.
Aerial surveys will continue through mid-May, extending from the southern plains of the Texas Panhandle and southeast New Mexico up through the Oklahoma Panhandle to western Kansas and southeastern 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.