Oklahoma Lesser Prairie-chicken Numbers Improve Again

Efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken (LPC) are continuing in Oklahoma and in the four other states involved in the Lesser Prairie-chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan. The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of the state wildlife agencies of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado along with private and public partners involved in lesser prairie-chicken conservation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently undergoing another review of the range-wide status of the LPC. It is scheduled to issue a decision later this year as to whether the species should be listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

On July 9, the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) announced results of its latest annual breeding population survey, which showed an increase of about 30 percent over the previous year: 38,637 birds compared to 29,934.

“The most encouraging result from the survey is the steadily increasing population trend over the last six years, which likely reflects improving habitat conditions,” said Roger Wolfe, the LPC program manager with WAFWA, which administers the plan.

The annual population growth is good news, continuing a statistically significant trend of population gains averaging 3,000 birds each year since 2013, when major drought conditions began to subside across the LPC native range that includes northwestern Oklahoma.

The range-wide plan was created to ensure long-term viability of the LPC through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry. It allows industry to continue operations in the event of a federal listing in exchange for industry reducing and mitigating impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat. Industry contributions support conservation actions implemented by participating private landowners.

To date, industry partners have committed more than $64 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed with WAFWA to conserve more than 150,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements. Oklahoma landowners also provide significant conservation for the LPC through a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) that was provided by the ODWC, whereby landowners voluntarily agreed to implement conservation practices that help the LPC in exchange for assurances that no additional burdens would apply to them in case the LPC is federally listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”

J.D. Strong, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, serves as chairman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “We’re encouraged by this year’s numbers but are mindful that successful conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken will require decades of consistent progress,” Strong said. “The continued success of the range-wide plan depends on ongoing participation by industry partners, and we are grateful for the support shown thus far.”

The LPC was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, a listing that was vacated in 2016 as a result of a lawsuit and subsequent federal court ruling. Several environmental groups petitioned the USFWS shortly after that ruling, triggering another species status review that could result in the LPC again being listed.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be making another ruling on the status of the lesser prairie-chicken later this year, and industry support of the plan is more important than ever. At such a critical juncture in the conservation of this important but imperiled prairie grouse, we encourage industry to contact us and get involved,” Strong said.

One aim of the range-wide plan is to eliminate any need to list the species as federally threatened by stabilizing the LPC population through voluntary conservation efforts. “We’re in this for the long haul, and we’re just four years in at this point,” Strong said. “We’re pleased at the progress that has been made thus far. The population trend is encouraging, as is the continued support of all of our partners who are participating in the range-wide plan.”

In Oklahoma, private landowners enrolled almost 400,000 acres during the CCAA enrollment period conducted before the LPC was listed as “threatened.” Oklahoma’s CCAA enrollees have continued to actively participate after the LPC “threatened” listing was vacated. Since 2015, state wildlife biologists have continued to monitor compliance with the CCAAs and have maintained contact with enrollees.

In January, the Wildlife Department hosted a forum of more than 60 professionals involved in LPC recovery efforts. The conservation partners’ forum was designed to identify paths forward to enhance current conservation strategies and develop new strategies to conserve the LPC and the grasslands of its native range.

“Everyone at the meeting shares the same goals of improving habitat and ultimately increasing populations of the lesser prairie-chicken across its range,” Strong said. “I am confident that we can make a real difference for long-term health of the prairie-chicken population and the working landscape where it lives.”

Amy Lueders, USFWS regional director for the Southwest Region, said, “This gathering has really exceeded expectations. We all share a passion for this, and it’s encouraging to celebrate the conservation successes we’ve had so far and work together to amplify all the efforts out there. We all need to stay focused on the goals of the range-wide plan and the bigger picture of restoring prairie ecosystems that are at risk, not only for the lesser prairie-chicken but for all species that depend on healthy habitat.”