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Prairie Chicken population dwindling

A survey recently completed by state and federal wildlife agencies shows the lesser prairie chicken is not endangered but is in need of a better managed habitat.

Wildlife officials produced a range-wide population for the lesser prairie chicken for the first time, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Grassland Initiative.

According to WAFWA spokesperson Bill Van Pelt, what this population count of 37,170 prairie chickens means is that wildlife officials have not only discovered that the prairie chicken is not endangered, but officials now have vast opportunities to learn more about the bird’s habitat.

“Surveys in the past have been done on a state-by-state level,” Van Pelt explained. “But states have different methods, so they weren’t necessarily statistically valid. With this (range-wide) methodology, we can say with some certainty, this is the range of the lesser prairie chicken.”

Van Pelt said the chicken’s range of living includes New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

He said the most recent survey of the five states, performed via helicopter, was the joint effort of WAFWA, the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group, the Bureau of Land Management and West Ecosystems Inc.

Van Pelt said the four organizations surveyed the various prairie chicken nests, called leks, across the five states, observing their numbers and habitats.

“In Kansas, we have an expanding chicken population and it populates a different habitat then it does in New Mexico,” Van Pelt said. “That’s why this study is so exciting, because we get a more holistic view of what the population is doing across the range. Then being able to compare across state lines is a big deal too.”

Van Pelt said different prairie chicken habitats may include more or less trees or brush or other types of wildlife or water.

He said officials are currently studying how the different elements of each state’s habitat for the bird affect the animal and results from the survey will be released in March 2013.

He said by conducting the current study, officials can observe what natural elements may be harming the bird’s ecosystem livelihood and remove it from the bird’s habitat.

Van Pelt said although the bird is not yet in the endangered category, it’s numbers are lower than desired.

“Seeing numbers lower, tells us that this ecosystem is not as healthy as it should be and needs to be managed differently. That’s what these prairie chickens are telling us,” Van Pelt said. “We still feel that the species needs to be managed and managed wisely. That’s why organizations are coming up with a range-wide species management plan.”

Van Pelt said the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the five states will choose focus areas in their states to study and keep an eye on the bird’s habitat with localized meetings being held to determine how each state will contribute to the management plan.

“It articulates the health of the grassland ecosystem as a whole,” Van Pelt said of the prairie chicken. “Their numbers have gone down since pioneer days but we feel there’s a strong enough number to manage the species and keep a healthy grassland out there.”