The Texas and Louisiana gulf coast was once home to a million Attwater’s Prairie Chickens. Today the bird is on the verge of extinction with a population of about 100. Houston Public Radio’s Rod Rice reports that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drafted a recovery plan for rare Texas native.
The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a member of the grouse family. It is brownish and strongly black barred with a short, rounded, blackish tail. It weighs about one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pounds and has been on the Endangered Species list since 1967. It lives in the wild in only three places, the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, just southwest of Sealy, the Texas City Prairie Preserve and on private lands near Goliad. Wendy Brown is with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“In addition to that there are quite a few Attwater’s Prairie Chickens in captivity and a number of different facilities participate in the captive program, which provides not only birds for release, but obviously our safety net in terms of carefully genetically managed captive breeding program to make sure that the species doesn’t go extinct.”
The reason for the dramatic decline of the bird is not because it’s been hunted to death.
“Certainly Attwater’s Prairie Chickens were hunted, but hunting is not the cause of their demise. The cause of their demise is that so much of their habitat has been converted to farm land, pasture land, and they’ve lost the native costal prairie that they’re dependent upon.”
Brown says this does not mean there is no habitat for the bird, she says there is a lot in Texas. The problem is that it is fragmented and with the precipitous decline of the bird the job now is to reintroduce into the wild.
“That is a very complicated issue, so in terms of our ability to recover the species based on the habitat that’s available and all the different habitat restoration programs that are currently planned or underway there certainly is great hope for the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken.”
One of those restoration projects is the private lands near Goliad. The habitat is available as part of the Coastal Prairie Conservation Initiative. Tim Anderson is a biologist with Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re working with private landowners and non-governmental organizations on projects to reclaim, restore and conserve habitat that might potentially serve as release sites for Attwater’s Prairie Chickens.”
Anderson says it is not always an easy sell to get landowners to allow for the release of an endangered species on their property. So they are offered a safe harbor agreement.
“The agreement pretty much says that if they will do something that provides a net conservation benefit to the listed species and maintain those improvements for a period time, then at the end of that period of time they can comeback and essentially dispose of the property as they wish.”
The draft recovery plan is largely habitat based. It calls for prescribed burns and cattle grazing to help maintain the prairie grasslands. The deadline for public comment on the plan is January 18th. You’ll find links to the plan, the unique mating call of the bird and a picture of an Attwater’s Prairie Chicken at KUHF.org.