Lesser prairie chicken on the decline

ALBUQUERQUE, NM Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the lesser prairie chicken's designation as a candidate for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act. WildEarth Guardians used the anniversary to release a report showing the bird's decline over the years in northeastern and southeastern New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

"It's been 10 years to the day that the Fish and Wildlife Service had admitted that it needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act. But here we are 10 years later without any formal legal protections under this law for this rare and declining bird," said Nicole Rosmarino, director of WildEarth Guardians' wildlife program.

Lesser prairie chickens are round, stocky ground-dwelling birds. Males are famous for courtship displays in which they inflate pouches of skin on the side of their necks. The displays have become the centerpiece of an annual festival near the eastern New Mexico town of Milnesand.

As the birds' population continues to decline, conservationists worry that the chance for birders to see the famous courtship could become a thing of the past.

Rosmarino believes the bird's future is bleak unless Fish and Wildlife decides to list it as either threatened or endangered.

"We're hoping to keep up the pressure to show that the lesser prairie chicken just can't be put in purgatory and forgotten," Rosmarino said. "It needs to be protected because those protections would be very meaningful for stemming the threats that it is currently facing."

According to the report, the range of the lesser prairie chicken -- an indicator species for the Southern Great Plains -- has been reduced by more than 90 percent and its population has declined by an estimated 97 percent since the 1800s.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not have funding this fiscal year for the studies necessary for proposing a listing, but staff biologists have been keeping an eye on the bird, as have landowners and other agencies, said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman in the agency's Albuquerque office.

Slown pointed to various projects aimed at helping the species, including putting markers on fence lines to prevent the chickens from colliding with barbed wire fences.

Fish and Wildlife also works with the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to promote cooperative agreements with landowners to ensure prairie chicken habitat is conserved.

"There are a lot of people out there who have taken steps to help with the prairie chickens," Slown said.

However, conservation groups say recent evidence shows the lesser prairie chicken has suffered serious declines due to habitat loss and fragmentation; grazing; oil, gas and wind energy development; herbicide use; and drought. They say climate change could exacerbate those threats.

Even though the bird is a candidate for the federal Endangered Species list, New Mexico officials have been reluctant to say the bird is on the brink. In 2006, the state Game Commission declined to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened or endangered. This year, surveys show the chicken population is apparently holding steady in New Mexico.

Game and Fish lesser prairie chicken biologist Grant Beauprez said he finished crunching the numbers from the department's spring survey Monday and found that nearly 7,000 birds were counted. He said that number could go up once surveys done on BLM and private lands are added. Last year's population was estimated at 6,300 birds.

Beauprez said he is working on a proposal to move some of the birds to expand populations in New Mexico.

Overall, he said, management recommendations for helping the bird have been spelled out in a conservation initiative recently released by officials in each of the five states in the bird's range. Among the recommendations are grazing, agricultural and energy development practices aimed at improving habitat for the bird.

Still, WildEarth Guardians contends the grouse is facing new and increasing threats and that many populations have continued to decline since 1998. Its report says that the bird may be lost in northeastern and southeastern New Mexico as well as parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

"It's important to underscore that it isn't in good shape anywhere," Rosmarino said. "Populations that remain are much reduced from their historic numbers."

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