In April, biologists at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge—a 10,000-acre stretch of tallgrass prairie an hour west of Houston, Texas—went out into the meadows in search of prairie-chickens. The spring breeding season was in full swing. Male Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens gathered in makeshift arenas called leks, their inflatable airsacs vivid on their chests and their booming calls and stamping dances carrying over the brush to watching females.
As the team counted birds, their surprise and delight grew. By the end of the official 2021 count, they’d spotted a combined 89 males at the refuge and on private lands where the species has been reintroduced, suggesting a wild population of at least 178 birds. The count was an improvement of 18 males over the 71 tallied the year before.
“2020 was one of our best nesting seasons probably ever,” says John Magera, refuge manager at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge who participated in the count. “It might be the best since we started keeping records before the species became endangered. We had 11 successful nests.”
These numbers might not sound impressive, but a year after the disastrous flooding unleashed by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, officials counted only 13 males remaining in the wild, a devastating blow for one of America’s most critically endangered birds. At the time, the news sparked serious concerns that the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken was caught in extinction’s undertow, with no easy escape. Thanks to the efforts of refuge biologists and zoologists at captive-breeding programs in Houston and Glen Rose, the 2021 count is the highest number of wild birds seen in 28 years. After a brush with disaster, it seems, the prairie-chicken population is tenuously back on track.
More than a century ago, as many as a million Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens—a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken—roamed the coastal prairies of Louisiana and Texas. But agriculture and development chewed up the tallgrass meadows, and woody brush took over much of the remainder. By the early 20th century, the prairie-chickens had vanished from Louisiana. In 1937, with bird numbers plummeting in Texas, officials with what became the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began looking into conservation methods. The species was federally listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1967, and institutions like the Houston Zoo began a captive-breeding program in the 1990s, with the goal of eventually returning the birds to the wild. Beginning in 2011, however, releases were continually stymied by flooding and bad weather, the worst of which came with Hurricane Harvey.
It was a crisis situation, Magera says, but the refuge didn’t go into panic mode. “We’d put 25 years' worth of work into partnering with private landowners, working out captive breeding, and recent discoveries for landscape treatments. We knew the birds were capable of nesting and hatching young on their own. We just needed a couple years of normal weather to demonstrate that.” From 2018 through 2020, the program’s luck held: The weather stayed relatively mild during the breeding seasons, Magera says, and the population rebounded.
In addition to good weather, another reason for that success came from the team's work to eradicate fire ants, an invasive species that suppressed the native insects prairie-chicken chicks depend on. Years of fire-ant treatments led to a 20-30 percent increase in native insect and ant populations, in part because fire ants were so aggressive that they were always first to the deadly bait. “We’ve gradually expanded that program to where we’ll treat 5,000-6000 acres of prairie a year,” Magera says, “so that we’re providing as much natural habitat as possible.”
But eradicating fire ants has only been one piece of the puzzle. “To say that the fire ants were the silver bullet would not do justice to the dozens of people who spent their lives working out how to preserve this species,” Magera says. And so a great deal of time and effort has also gone into working out precise methods for keeping wild nests safe (anti-predator fences do the job nicely), for cultivating healthy genetics in breeding pairs in complexes at NASA and Fossil Rim, and in establishing controlled burning and grazing regimens on the refuge to more accurately mimic the conditions that prairie-chickens and other tallgrass natives once enjoyed.
This year's count numbers also suggest the management tools used at the refuge and on private land are effective, says Kirk Feuerbacher, coastal prairies project director with the Texas Nature Conservancy. “Being able to reestablish a population of grouse species sets a precedent and outlines avenues of success and failure for recovery efforts that can then be extrapolated to other imperiled grouse species.”
The important thing now, Magera says, is for people to understand that progress is possible. “We don’t do a good enough job promoting our success stories,” he says. “I think the public is a little bit exhausted with crisis situations trying to turn their heads. I think these days, people are more likely to get onboard with a successful program.”