Presenter: Heather Whitlaw

Commission Agenda Item No. 16
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation
January 2006

I. Executive Summary: This item presents a brief summary of the history and current status of lesser prairie-chicken conservation efforts in Texas, in addition to the role of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in inter-state conservation efforts.

II. Discussion: The lesser prairie-chicken (LPC) is one of three species of pinnated grouse - or prairie grouse - that historically inhabited the State of Texas; LPCs and Attwater's prairie chickens remain today. LPCs are found over portions of the northeastern and southwestern areas of the Texas panhandle, but numbers and distribution have been greatly reduced since settlement of the area in the late 1800s. Systematic surveys of the number of Texas counties where LPCs occur began in 1940. Annual surveys to determine population trends of lesser prairie-chickens in Texas were initiated in 1952. In 2005, TPWD reported that LPCs were found in portions of a minimum of 14 counties. The LPC is classified as an upland game bird in Texas, with conservative harvest quotas set for individual properties enrolled in TPWD-approved management plans.

Due to concern over the lesser prairie-chicken's decline in occupied range and population levels, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to list the LPC as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1995. The Service was under a listing moratorium at the time, and did not issue a finding of "warranted but precluded" until 1998. This 1998 finding indicated that while the petition to list the LPC as a threatened species under the ESA was warranted, other higher-priority species needed to be considered before a listing could take place. Since 1998, the Service has revisited the status of the LPC on an annual basis, and has maintained its status as a candidate for listing under the ESA.

Habitat conservation and restoration for the LPC is synonymous with conservation and restoration of prairie in general; LPCs cannot survive without vast expanses of intact prairie. Historically the LPC shared its prairie home with bison, American pronghorn, black-tailed prairie dog, black-footed ferret, burrowing owl, Cassin's sparrow, and many other species of prairie-dependent birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. While some of these species are still common today, most either have been extirpated or occur in greatly reduced numbers. Since the LPC requires large blocks of unfragmented native prairie to survive, it serves as an indicator for other prairie species of concern; if insufficient habitat remains to support the LPC, other species may soon disappear as well. While some large blocks of native prairie continue to support remnant LPC populations, the fragmentation of existing habitat by human-induced changes to the landscape is cause for great concern.

Fragmentation and isolation of prairie habitat makes it more difficult for prairie species to disperse and colonize new areas after the breeding season, and nest predation rates tend to be highest in fragmented landscapes. The result, while looking relatively unchanged to the untrained eye, is a landscape that functions at just a portion of its potential to produce and support native species.

In addition to providing habitat for many grassland-dependent species, the native prairies of the Texas panhandle also serve as a recharge source for one of the world's largest underground aquifers: the Ogallala or High Plains Aquifer. However, like the LPC that lives atop the prairie, the Ogallala itself is in trouble. Unregulated pumping for irrigation and municipal uses threaten the sustainability of the Ogallala and the future of the region in general. Unless conservation measures are implemented in the near future, the decline of the Ogallala will have significant impacts on the future of the Great Plains.

The conservation concerns of the Texas panhandle are long-standing and complex, and if we are to conserve and restore icons like the LPC and the vast Ogallala, we need to take steps to conserve them. TPWD staff has been involved in LPC efforts for the past several years; within the past year staff have increased efforts further. Within Texas, LPC restoration and conservation measures initiated and/or completed to date include development of a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), development of an LPC Wildlife Emphasis Area within EQIP, continued research on survey techniques and population dynamics, increased outreach efforts, support of landowner associations for wildlife management and prescribed burning, landowner "listening sessions", land use-land cover mapping to focus conservation efforts, and development of a statewide Conservation Strategy. Interstate-level efforts include TPWD support of a full-time staff member to serve as the LPC Interstate Coordinator, development of an MOU for LPC Conservation, development of an Interstate LPC Conservation Strategy, and increased coordination and partnerships for delivery of conservation on private lands.