This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held its final public hearings on a proposal to list the prairie chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This comes after decades of population declines that experts blame, in part, on the expansion of farms, ranches and energy industry operations across the Southwest and other states.

Brady Stout, who grew up in Emporia, but hunted prairie chickens on his grandfather’s land in Bazar, recalls seeing waves of 200 and 300 birds flying into the fields when he was out hunting.

Today, he runs a ranching operation on that same land and the prairie chickens are nonexistent.

“Usually, I will see a handful through the winter, but this year I haven’t seen any,” Stout said. “There are lots of theories why the birds disappeared, but I don’t know if anyone really knows why.”

Stout is unsure whether the birds should be put on an endangered list, but noted that Kansas still has a long hunting season for them. More than half of the about 37,200 short-flight birds counted last year were spotted in Kansas. Texas banned such hunting in 2009 and Colorado already has listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened. They’re also found in portions of New Mexico and Oklahoma.

During the public hearings, oil, gas and wind energy producers are working to persuade federal wildlife officials not to enact protections for the lesser prairie chicken, a move that could force them to halt or significantly alter their operations to protect the species’ dwindling grassland habitat.

Even as wildlife advocates make their case, companies have been developing habitat-conservation plans they hope will prevent the agency from taking such action. A similar strategy worked last year in Texas and New Mexico when the federal government considered protections for the dunes sagebrush lizard.

A federal listing would “make life more complicated for producers,” said Alex Mills, president of Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. “I am optimistic that our conservation efforts toward the bird and the habitat can be effective.”

Spring mating season is usually the only time people can see lesser prairie chickens out and about as males sing and strut across grasslands, displaying brilliant yellow-orange eye combs and puffing out their reddish-purple air sacs to attract females. But with the species’ numbers down about 80 percent since the early 1960s, spotting them even during courtship has become increasingly difficult.

Governors of these five states last month issued a statement opposing federal protections for the bird, noting voluntary conservation efforts by their states and commitments from industry leaders and landowners to address the issue.

But advocates for the lesser prairie chicken are concerned such plans would not be enforceable.

“That’s going to be a major test when it comes to the chicken,” said Jay Lininger of the Center for Biological Diversity, who calls the species a bellwether for America’s prairies and does much to regulate insect populations. “Each state is going to do its level best to avoid a federal listing. However, whether those agreements will avert extinction remains to be seen.”

The chickens, which have feathered feet and a stout build, need large tracts of relatively intact native grasslands and prairies to thrive. But such habitats are being wiped out as wind turbines, oil derricks, ranches and farms are added.

Wind energy companies that expect to develop farms across the chickens’ habitat began work on habitat-conservation plans three years ago and hope to have one finalized in March, said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association. He declined to share details of the plan.

“We really want to try to be as proactive as possible to show it’s not necessary to go forward with the final listing,” Anderson said.

The Environmental Defense Fund also is helping by setting up voluntary habitat exchanges with ranchers and farmers to create and maintain vital spaces for the chicken. Energy companies and other developers pay landowners to mitigate land use to meet their obligations to offset wildlife impacts.

Lesli Gray with the federal wildlife service in Dallas said the agency is encouraging all conservation planning to help the prairie chicken, but would not say whether this would influence the agency’s final decision, expected this fall. However, landowners and industry who have a wildlife-management plan in place would avoid further restrictions if the lesser prairie chicken moves from candidate status to threatened.

“Those are all good things,” she said. “We look forward to getting that information.”

The third of four public hearings by the wildlife service was scheduled for Monday night in Lubbock, Texas. One in Roswell, N.M., was set for Tuesday.

(8) comments

t4mile

i am no fan of turkeys, but they aren,t that hard to control lol..hawks on the other hand cause great damage and with all the squatters moving into rural areas you have to be little more careful with (control).. burning isn,t the problem not everyone burns at the same time and they are quite comfortable in new growth. . turkeys get a lot of bad press but again most tales of turkey digging up seed behind a planter are BS, if i run into one that smart i am sure a pass close to him can fix the problem lol... lack of cover in pastures and farmland turned under in the fall, and hawks and preditors are biggest problems . period dot dot

Hightaxes

Turkeys don't eat quail. That's an old wives tale and has been disproven by not only the KDWP but also the NWTF. Turkeys became prevalent when trees took over. Prairie chickens can't survive with trees. In fact the last telemetry study that I found showed 38 of the 63 chickens collared died to avian predators notably the northern goshawk and red tailed hawk. Go drive a county road and see how many hawks you count in a 5 mile stretch. Farmers are the ones doing the damage but they refuse to admit it. Burning every year leaves chickens nowhere to nest. With ATVs they don't do a nice mosaic burn, but they torch it all. Studies going in Butler county show a 4 year burn rotation helped chicken populations. Also Eastern Red Cedar is an invasive species, yet the Kansas Forest Service was giving grants for people to plant them. Farmers are blaming turkeys because they don't want to look in the mirror and admit what is really going on.

BaseballFan

My totaly "uneducated" comment does have a ring of truth. If you were to read/study some of the information from Fish & Game, you would know that to be so. Turkeys also reak havoc on the quail population, as in eating/destroying the quails' eggs. I was trying to point out, since the turkey have become prevalent, the quail AND prarie chicken popultion has declined. If you were to talk with some of the farmers in the Reading area, I'm sure they would voice their opinion on the turkey. Maybe they don't "totally" affect the chicken situation, but they do have some affect on it.

t4mile

exactly high taxes. look at all the people who are buying ground and the first thing they do is try to change from prairie to trees. most government programs favor planting trees or brush instead of enjoying the sheer beauty of open prairie. we now give awards for this... but destruction of grazing prairie by over grazing and not leaving stubble for food and cover is the key area that needs to change , how much is left in a disked field for food . and with prairie grubbed to the ground there,s not much to eat as far as weed or grass seed

Hightaxes

Turkeys have zero to do with declining prairie chickens numbers and to say they do is totally uneducated. They live in habitat on opposite ends of the spectrum. Habitat has been changing slowly, to favor turkeys and not the chickens. Also woody and human encroachment has really hurt them. Buy 80 acres in the hills and put a house in the middle of it and you just eliminated a section of nesting ground. Also look at satelitte photos over the years and see how much woody encroachment has occurred.

t4mile

there are to many reasons to list here, it,s not as bad as in years past, i would say populations are increasing in some areas. overgrazed pastures infested with trees don,t help. last year there was a good hatch, hawks,coons, skunks, coyotes are a big problem .the major issue is not enought cover in over grazed pastures, and not enough areas of farm ground left for food after harvest.. . quail populations have fallen sharply also. forget about the wind turbines and look at the condition of most pastures and you expect them to thrive with the new attitude of grazing these pastures into the ground. you can,t teach stupid !!!!!! look at all the (new ) programs that promote planting all the cedars. in a few years it,s bare under them .

BaseballFan

Having hunted these "elusive", fascinating birds, I would encourage they be put on some sort of "Federal" list. Noticeably, their numbers are declining. These birds used to be pretty abundant, but over the last 10-15 years, they are becoming more rare.
Another reason for their decline is the "over-population" of the wild turkey, which reeks havoc on farmland. These birds should be hunted more then they are. They have become great nuisance.
Another suggestion is to make the chicken season shorter, and extend the turkey season, maybe even increasing the limits on the turkey. These are just terrible game, as far as the farmer is concerned.

DiAblo

I think your suggestions are wise ones. Perhaps go so far as to have a year or two with no chicken hunting season(s) at all.

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