Lesser prairie chickens, an iconic and critically important indicator species for prairie and grassland ecosystems, await the Interior Department’s final decision regarding their conservation status
Long before humans knew what a storefront was, female lesser prairie chickens, Tympanuchus pallidicinctus, had honed “window shopping” into an exacting science upon which the future of the entire species depends. Unlike many birds, which are generally socially monogamous, female lesser prairie chickens choose one male to father their chicks before going off on their own to raise their chicks on their own. The choice of a mate is critically important in this process, so the females invest time into scrutinizing and comparing dancing males as they search for the best genes available. For this reason, male lesser prairie chickens gather together on traditional dancing grounds, known as leks, at sunrise in the spring where they dance for a few hours, competing for the opportunity to father the next generation of lesser prairie chickens.
Although this mate selection process looks mysterious to human eyes, female lesser prairie chickens tend to agree on which male is the best choice: two or sometimes three males on each lek end up being chosen to father 90% or more of that season’s chicks (ref). For this reason, the stakes are high for the males.
Once, millions of lesser prairie chickens danced on the vast wide-open prairies throughout most of North America, but now, thanks to human-caused habitat destruction and degradation — agriculture; ranching; drought; mining; drilling for oil and gas; fences, power lines and other tall structures where predators can perch; as well as roads — it’s estimated that there are less 35,000 alive today (ref). Currently, these iconic birds occupy just 16% of their historic range, more than 90% of which is in private hands (ref).
But the crux of the problem? Most of the lesser prairie chicken’s range lies within the so-called Permian Basin, which is rich in oil and gas.
In addition to its plummeting population, the lesser prairie chicken’s range has contracted and fragmented into small refugia found in portions of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Thanks to its dependence upon the prairie ecosystem, the lesser prairie chicken acts as an “indicator species”: tracking the health of this one species provides biologists with an early warning system for monitoring the general health of the avian, wildlife, insect and plant species that also live in the prairie ecosystem.
Yet, despite its plummeting populations and despite losing more than 90% of its former range to human interests (ref), conservation of the lesser prairie chicken has been, and continues to be, a political football and this has been readily apparent in the decades it took before it was granted the conservation protection that it deserves. But finally, in 2011, this species was listed by the USFWS as threatened — a level of protection that lasted only two years before it was rescinded, thanks to a legal challenge by a Texas oil trade group. And this was after the USFWS admitted in court that the loss of even a small amount of suitable habitat could push the lesser prairie chicken into a “death spiral” (ref).
Today, the lesser prairie chicken is still awaiting conservation protection. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will soon be delivering his final decision on these birds’ futures — and whether the lesser prairie chicken, along with the other species in its prairie-dwelling community, will even have a future at all.
Adam C. Behney, Blake A. Grisham, Clint W. Boal, Heather A. Whitlaw, and David A. Haukos (2017). Sexual Selection and Mating Chronology of Lesser Prairie-Chickens, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 124(1):96–105 | doi:10.1676/11–079.1
Christian A. Hagen, Blake A. Grisham, Clint W. Boal, and David A. Haukos (2013). A meta‐analysis of lesser prairie‐chicken nesting and brood‐rearing habitats: Implications for habitat management, Wildlife Society Bulletin, 37(4):750–758 | doi:10.1002/wsb.313
Read more about conservation and politics associated with the lesser prairie chicken:
Emily Sohn and Morgan Heim, via Day’s Edge Productions (2018). A Grand Experiment on the Grasslands (link).