Worst-case scenarios being spread as fact

The decision on whether to list the lesser prairie chicken as a “threatened” species will be made by the end of March, so time to influence the opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Jake Swafford

Jake Swafford

(USFWS) is running out.

Agencies across the range of the species are working hard to create as much habitat as possible before the service stops taking new acres into consideration.

Lesser prairie chickens are a species of prairie grouse that occupy the grasslands of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and the shinnery oak grasslands and short grass prairie of eastern New Mexico.

These unique birds require large expanses of open grassland and are in decline due to habitat fragmentation and drought.

They meet in the spring on flat areas called “leks” to mate. The males put on a spectacular display called “booming,” inflating the bright orange air sacs on their necks while calling and performing a sort of tap dance to attract females.

The potential listing makes it clear that conservation efforts and the bird’s population need immediate boosts. Unfortunately, the soonest the population could increase is the spring, after the decision is scheduled. Conservation programs offered now are the most effective tools for preventing lesser prairie chickens from becoming “threatened.”

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, along with agencies in the other four states where the chickens call home, have come together to write a plan to guide the bird to recovery. These agencies are trying to convince USFWS that management of the lesser prairie chicken should remain in the hands of the states, and that they have a plan to do it well.

The plan relies on established goals and conservation methods that work across the species’ entire range.

These programs are designed to protect and appeal to landowners while striving to improve lesser prairie chicken habitat and reduce chicken deaths. There’s a chance the USFWS will view them as successful and decide against a listing. The more landowners that participate, the better those chances are.

There have been a lot of meetings over the past year to talk about programs and address landowners’ questions. Much of the fear stems from the lack of clarity about what it will mean if the lesser prairie chicken is declared a threatened species.

What rules will be put in place, and how extreme will they be? Where will they apply? Whom will they affect?

Because the USFWS has not issued clear answers, fears of worst-case scenarios are being spread as fact. While no one but the USFWS knows exactly what regulations will take effect if a listing occurs, enrolling in one of these programs could help prevent a listing altogether.

If you have questions about how you might be affected by a listing, or for information on one of the many programs that could help you and the lesser prairie chicken please contact me, your local Natural Resource Conservation Service or the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Jake Swafford is a farm bill wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. You can reach him at jswafford@

pheasantsforever.org or at (575) 201-8117.

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