Free-Range Chickens

Lesser prairie chickens are almost cooked. But in the West, sensible planning and healthy partnerships hold promise—if Americans would only abandon their current policy of wind, oil, and gas development anywhere, at any cost.

It was the best dance I’d ever attended. On any other occasion, Dan Snodgrass, a regional land manager for The Nature Conservancy, and I would have gladly risen to lead Iliana Peña, director of conservation for Audubon Texas, and Karyn Stockdale, executive director of Audubon New Mexico, onto the dance floor. But on this frigid April pre-dawn an hour west of Lubbock, Texas, we just sat there, whispering.

The dancers, a mere 100 feet away, were lesser prairie chickens, endangered in fact if not by federal decree. A 1995 petition to provide protection under the Endangered Species Act elicited a proclamation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, three years later, that listing was “warranted but precluded.” Basically that translates to “we’re too busy and too poor to do anything about this.” So lesser prairie chickens got consigned to a statutory purgatory called “candidate species,” which provides no legal protection but considerable resources for recovery.

Before we could see the birds, we heard them—an insectlike buzz, progressing to rattles, gobbles, clucks, and churs. As false dawn smudged the dance floor, or “lek,” we could make out the round forms of males as they sparred, stamped, drooped their wings, bowed, jumped, and fluttered. Soon we could see the dust they were kicking up and their raised tails and erect pinnae (the neck feathers that make them look like rabbits). Finally, as the sun bulged out of the eastern horizon, we saw their inflated maroon neck pouches and the yellow patches above their eyes. They were smaller than I had expected, about a foot long, the size of the ruffed grouse I share my Yankee woodlot with.

Birds sailed in from all compass points until there were 17, some so close we could see their colored leg bands. Three perched on the chicken-wire traps set up the day before by researchers Blake Grisham and Phil Borsdorf, graduate students at Texas Tech University’s Department of Natural Resources Management. Other birds pushed against and followed the wire fence designed to guide them into the traps, but eventually they turned away.

A muffled cheer arose from Grisham’s truck. They were celebrating the first lesser prairie chicken copulation of 2011—a successful one because the hen ruffled her feathers and flew off the lek. In the brightening air the birds faded fairylike into the grass, sage, and shinnery oaks. Lark buntings flitted across the lek, and in the distance harriers dipped and wobbled over this tiny island of native prairie—the Yoakum Dunes Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy.


A top priority for Peña and Stockdale will be setting up Globally Important Bird Areas for lesser prairie chickens. No GIBA has yet been designated, but in May 2011 the Texas IBA Technical Committee approved Peña’s application for Yoakum Dunes Preserve, and at this writing it’s being reviewed by the national committee. (State and national committees consist of bird experts selected by Audubon.) “We want to get as many GIBAs as possible because we think they’ll hold weight for developers, especially wind developers,” she said.

The wind binge hasn’t hit this part of Texas yet, but it’s a major threat in five northern counties that lie within the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones established by the Texas Public Utilities Commission for wind development. Huge double-circuit, 345-kilo-volt power lines are already going up to support that development. Prairie chickens evolved in the absence of trees, so they avoid vertical structures. The turbines are bad enough, but the transmission lines are worse because raptors and corvids, major predators, roost and nest on the poles. Wind power is no less a threat in other states.

I could see why GIBA designation is important. To the southeast, east, and northeast, amid a tangle of power lines, oil pump jacks pecked the earth. To the south and west center-pivot irrigators rose above bare cotton fields that spat dirt into the Texas wind, and where cotton stopped, sorghum started. Similar habitat destruction and fragmentation are happening elsewhere in the state and in the rest of the bird’s range—Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

 It’s not clear if lesser prairie chickens once occurred outside these five states, mostly because of early confusion with greater prairie chickens. While greaters are slightly larger and more restricted to taller grasses, they share some range with lessers and are so closely related they’ll occasionally hybridize with them. But Texas is thought to have been the center of lesser prairie chicken distribution, with perhaps two million birds. Today it probably has no more than 6,000 and possibly as few as 3,000.

From 1963 to 1980 habitat in the five states declined 78 percent, to 10,500 square miles. While there has been recovery since, there are new and ever more damaging sources of habitat destruction and fragmentation, such as the wind-power craze, the gas-and-oil rush, and lavishly subsidized corn-ethanol production. Without major habitat protection and restoration, the species appears doomed.

But just such habitat work is under way. Whether it will be enough or in time remains to be seen.


While the morning had been better than anything I could have expected, I was disappointed that we hadn’t caught a bird in one of the traps. Snodgrass started his truck, and we followed Grisham and Borsdorf west on the dirt road. To the north six mule deer trotted casually away. As we came abreast of another lek, Grisham and Borsdorf piled out of the truck, hitting the ground on a dead run. A prairie chicken was in one of the traps, and it was a hen—the 10th that would be banded and radio-collared in 2011.

Grisham ordered us not to speak or get too close. He tied on the radio collar, Superglued on purple, green, and orange plastic leg bands, and pinched on an aluminum one. He weighed her—750 grams (about a pound and a half), indicating good health. Finally, he took a blood sample to measure lipids (another health indicator) and check for West Nile virus. The disease has been showing up in lesser prairie chickens, but they seem to be beating it.

Beside this lek was a circular water tank filled by a submersible, solar-powered pump. “Lesser prairie chickens do not require open water. Water requirements are met by the consumption of succulent vegetation, insects, and dew, except in periods of drought, when water from stock ponds and prairie streams may be used.” That proclamation (by the Oklahoma State University’s Cooperative Extension Service) echoes a theory defended, often adamantly, since the 1960s.

But with colored leg band combinations (by which individuals can be identified) and remote video cameras set up on some 15 water tanks on the Yoakum Dunes Preserve and surrounding ranches, Grisham and Borsdorf have gathered evidence that the theory is bunk. So far they have photos of 800 instances of chickens coming to water. There have been no visits by hens during July, August, and September (the hottest, driest months). In fact, 87 percent of the hen visits have been recorded in April and May, during egg development. Formation of an average clutch of 10 eggs requires about a cup and a half of water, a tremendous amount for a prairie chicken. What’s more, many natural springs, including all the ones on the preserve, have dried up. There is no better example of how recovery of a species depends on field research—in this case funded by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with logistical support from Texas Tech, the U.S. Geological Survey, and a new partnership organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

Another myth debunked by fieldwork is the notion that lesser prairie chickens require sandy soils. “We’ve found chickens even on tight soils that support mixed grass or taller grasses,” says Sean Kyle, panhandle biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “I don’t think there was enough habitat to support them on just the sandy soils for the numbers they used to see.”

Then there’s the old saw, still being promoted by a number of environmental groups based in the West, that cattle grazing inevitably destroys fish and wildlife habitat and needs to be banned from public land. But lesser prairie chickens depend on cattle grazing, as I learned when I toured the ranches surrounding Yoakum Dunes with Peña, Stockdale, Kyle, and Duane Lucia, a panhandle biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Overgrazing degrades chicken habitat, taking out residual cover, but that doesn’t happen much these days, at least in these parts. Cattle grazing that mimics the past grazing of bison produces more seeds, insects, and other important prairie chicken food than ungrazed or heavily grazed land. “Pretty much all Great Plains wildlife requires disturbance,” remarked Kyle. “That wildlife evolved with millions of bison and a lot of fire. Prairie chickens can do well with cattle.”

Without moderate disturbance grasslands are quickly invaded by trees like mesquite and eastern red cedar. Not only do trees provide perches and nesting sites for predators, they shade out forbs and grasses and fill in leks, making courtship impossible. Shinnery oak is a component of good chicken habitat because it provides heat protection and acorns, an important food source. But even shinnery oak can get too high and too thick. And tree invasion is being exacerbated by human suppression of wildfire.

The birds on the 7,200-acre Yoakum Dunes Preserve would not be doing so well—in fact, might not even be there—without the well-managed ranches that surround it and which bring total habitat to something like 30,000 acres. The Nature Conservancy is even planning to bring cattle onto the preserve itself.

The problem isn’t too much grazing, it’s not enough of it. As it is, Lucia has to do prescribed burns and herbicide treatments. About 98 percent of Texas is privately owned, and in the lesser prairie chicken’s five-state range the figure is something like 70 percent. This means that without landowner cooperation in habitat maintenance and restoration, the species hasn’t got much of a chance.

But in all five states, that cooperation is happening. Prescribed burns, herbiciding, water-source development, and other ranching improvements that benefit both cattle and chickens are being funded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), via EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) and WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program), and by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife program. What’s more, the NRCS has just initiated a multi-agency partnership called the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation Initiative that will intensify and streamline this effort by identifying what good prairie chicken habitat looks like and by providing increased financial and logistical assistance to landowners to help them create it.

At one ranch we inspected a new grassland that contrasted sharply with the woody scrub on the opposite side of the road. Lucia’s and Kyle’s agencies had created it by herbiciding out the mesquite, and prairie chickens had promptly moved in. “Every year we’ve treated farther north,” declared Lucia. Presently he pointed to a patch of prairie that, despite a few small trees, looked plenty birdy to me. “We treated that piece four or five years ago,” he said, “and birds won’t go into it anymore.” Keeping lesser prairie chickens on the landscape is never-ending, expensive work.

Here, as everywhere, the task of beating back invasive plants is impossible without herbicides. But herbicide use is always tricky business, especially in West Texas. This is farm and ranch country, so the politically active chemophobes, who hate all poisons without bothering to learn about any and who impede their use elsewhere, aren’t much of a problem. The problem is cotton. To effectively poison mesquite and other trees, soil temperatures have to be above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but that’s when cotton is growing and the herbicide, delivered by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft, can drift on the wind and kill it. So conditions have to be just right, and if you mess up even a little, you get the powerful ag community on your back.


As difficult as it is to maintain habitat, it can be even harder to make it. “You have to turn ag land back to rangeland,” said Kyle. “We do that in a number of ways—with CRP, for example.” CRP stands for the Conservation Reserve Program, in which farmers get federal compensation for taking land out of production and planting it with stabilizing ground cover.

When CRP got going in 1985, farmers planted mostly native grasses, but soon aggressive, easily established aliens like Old World bluestem and weeping lovegrass became available and at lower cost. Farmers asked the USDA’s Farm Services Agency if they could plant aliens instead, and because the FSA was thinking about erosion control rather than wildlife, it said sure.

In Kansas, which sustains nearly half of the planet’s lesser prairie chickens, the population has been increasing. The species is doing so well in the state, in fact, that it can be legally hunted. The Kansas success story is only part luck. While a huge amount of land was signed up for CRP because of the sandy, highly erodible soil, the state and the FSA administrator had the foresight to insist it be planted only to native cover. And it hasn’t hurt that the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has had some inspired leadership, most recently in the person of Mike Hayden, a trained wildlife biologist and the state’s former governor, who ran the agency for nine years, leaving office last January. “Our chickens were declining, too,” he told me. “But when CRP came in, that decline reversed. Our CRP is a patchwork, which is great for chickens—a quarter-section here, half a section there, and all intermixed with corn, wheat, milo, native grasses, and intermittent sand-sage prairie. We thought their historic range was only southwestern Kansas, but now we’re finding them far to the north. They’ve followed the CRP.”

Heather Whitlaw, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s southern plains coordinator, offered this: “Kansas has a relationship with NRCS unlike any other state on the Great Plains. They work in the same offices; their boots are on the ground together. They have people who are paid half time by NRCS and half time by Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. It’s a great partnership. Everyone’s talking and communicating.”

While the other states were less provident, Kyle and Lucia are finding that natives are showing up on Texas CRP land. They’re not sure if there were some indigenous seeds in the early alien plantings or if the natives are just invading the invasives. But on a lot of CRP land there, lesser prairie chickens are moving back in.

But because CRP contracts run for only 10 or 15 years before they have to be renewed, the program can’t offer permanent protection. With prices for crops like cotton, milo, corn, and wheat approaching all-time highs, land is being un-enrolled and planted. Further destroying incentives to keep land in CRP are new drought-resistant strains of crops that can grow where cotton and sorghum could never grow before. And on top of this is the legislated demand for corn ethanol—which requires more energy in the form of fossil fuel to create than it delivers (see “Drunk on Ethanol,” Audubon, July-August 2004).

Still, managers are coming up with innovative ways to keep lesser prairie chickens on private land. Perhaps the most valuable tool is the Endangered Species Act—not for enforcement, because the species isn’t listed, but as an incentive for habitat maintenance and restoration. The act had been a failure on private land, encouraging elimination rather than protection of wildlife until President Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, started rewarding instead of punishing landowners who hosted listed species. One of the ways he did this was with what are called Safe Harbor Agreements, which granted landowners who agreed to preserve and maintain habitat guarantees that they wouldn’t be prosecuted should future legal land use result in “take.” 

Modeled after Safe Harbor is a new program for candidate species called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA). Landowners who agree to do habitat work—which costs them little and in many cases benefits their operations by restoring grass and creating water sources—are guaranteed that, should the species be listed, they won’t have to implement measures in excess of those specified in the CCAA and they won’t be prosecuted for the take permitted under the CCAA agreement.

“In the last year and a half we’ve been able to sign up 115,000 acres in CCAAs,” said Kyle. “And we’ve got another four or five ranches on line. CCAAs are a much better deal for landowners than Safe Harbor Agreements.” He explained that participants get to keep working with Parks, Wildlife and Tourism staffers they’ve known for years, while nonparticipants get handed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel from away whom they may never have met and who know relatively little about their land. “We feel Parks and Wildlife can do a much better job at recovery than the feds,” Kyle added.

Audubon New Mexico’s Stockdale agrees that listing is not always the best way to recover a species. But she makes this point: “Habitat continues to be fragmented and converted to other uses, and chicken numbers continue to decline. When you have a species like this, which covers parts of five states, it seems that having a federal agency to oversee and coordinate recovery will be helpful. But the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t recover the species alone. Much will depend on state wildlife agencies.”


Few people want lesser prairie chickens declared threatened or endangered. Kyle, Lucia, Peña, and Stockdale don’t want listing because it would mean they’ve failed in their recovery efforts. Wind, oil, and gas developers and the politicians they finance don’t want listing because they imagine it will impede profit making. On June 8, 2011, in one of the more brazen attacks on the Endangered Species Act, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) offered an amendment that would block the Fish and Wildlife Service from ever using the act to protect lesser prairie chickens. And Republican representatives Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Michael Conaway, Randy Neugebauer, and Francisco Canseco of Texas have proposed stripping Fish and Wildlife Service of funding for listing the bird.

If the bird does get listed, there will be lots more federal dollars for recovery. If it doesn’t, ongoing efforts of federal and state managers like Lucia and Kyle, assisted by the outreach, lobbying, and habitat work of organizations like Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, may still save it.

I left Texas with a better feeling about the future of lesser prairie chickens than I’d had when I arrived. But I watched the weather with increasing alarm. From Peña, Stockdale, and other friends in the Southwest I knew about the severe heat and drought. I wasn’t expecting good news about nesting when I phoned Blake Grisham on June 8, nor did I get it. Nesting had been a complete bust. Of 17 radio-collared hens, only three initiated nests, and all abandoned them in about a day.

Yet Grisham sounded strangely upbeat. Dry, hot weather happens, and prairie wildlife evolved with it. Moreover, the nest failures had provided important information. When prairie chickens are stressed by heat they lower their body temperature by rapidly flapping their throat membranes to increase evaporation. The cameras had recorded this “gullar fluttering” and correlated timelines with data from temperature and humidity sensors in each nest.

Plus, good brood years often follow poor ones. For example, 2009 had been something of bust, too. But 2010 had been excellent.

Like all wildlife, lesser prairie chickens can deal with limiting factors nature confronts them with. But what about the factors humans confront them with? In Texas I’d seen proof that the species is a survivor that can tough out horrific habitat destruction—provided humans give it a few chances like the ones I saw happening. If those chances keep coming and if America embraces a new energy policy that isn’t ruinously expensive in our most beautiful and valuable assets, lesser prairie chickens will have a range-wide future like the one they have at Yoakum Dunes.