First range-wide lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey concluded
Recent aerial surveys conducted to assess lesser prairie-chicken populations across portions of five states including Oklahoma have turned up some good news, according to biologists.
Despite concerns about the lesser prairie-chicken across its range and the severe drought that occurred last year across the surveyed region, biologists were able to make several observations in Beaver, Ellis, Harper and Texas counties during the survey. The survey was looking for additional "leks," or areas used by lesser prairie-chickens each year for courtship and mating.
"This is an important effort among several partners, and Oklahoma is directly involved," said Doug Schoeling, upland game bird biologist for the Wildlife Department. "We don't want to see the lesser prairie-chicken designated as a federally threatened or endangered species - obviously first and foremost because we want the species to thrive in Oklahoma. Also, we feel that the Wildlife Department has exceptional relationships with our state's landowners and our other partners, which allows us to have the most beneficial impact on the management and recovery of the lesser prairie-chicken."
Biologists with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation participated in the surveys as part of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Interstate Working Group, which includes representatives from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas fish and wildlife agencies as well as collaborators from Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and West Ecosystems, Inc of Laramie, Wyo.
The unique effort included a large-scale, helicopter-based survey to locate lesser prairie-chicken leks across the High Plains region in the five states. These surveys encompassed more than 300,000 square miles and the results will be used to produce the first ever, statistically valid, five-state lek estimate. Final survey results will be available this summer.
The majority of lesser prairie-chicken habitat is in Kansas, and the survey also discovered leks in Kansas that are beyond what was thought to be the northern extent of the historic range of the species. Lesser prairie-chicken numbers have been increasing in Kansas for the last 15 years, while populations have declined in the southern portions of the range. Biologists believe this northward expansion may represent a shift in the population of the species as a result of improved habitat and the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides incentives to farmers and landowners for converting cropland back to native grasses.
The lesser prairie-chicken has been considered a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1998, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service will be releasing a proposed rule on the status of the bird under ESA in September 2012. Information from these surveys will be used as a baseline by the state fish and wildlife agencies to monitor trends in prairie-chicken populations and to target conservation programs in partnership with private landowners; oil and gas; wind industry; and electric utilities.
For more information about lesser prairie-chickens and other wildlife in Oklahoma, log on to wildlifedepartment.com.