April 5, 2023

Romance on the prairie: Lesser prairie chickens gather for spring courtship amid declining habitat

A male lesser prairie chicken displays for females at a lekking site in southeast New Mexico. (Photo by Michael Smith)

A rosy hue colored the clouds on the dark horizon when Michael Smith heard the first lesser prairie chicken of the morning making a bubbling, chuckle-like noise out on a planted field at a ranch in the small village of Causey, southeast of Portales.

It was still too dark to see the birds. But, as the sun rose, the people touring the lek on March 30 began spotting the species of grouse. A lek is an area where the lesser prairie chicken goes to dance as part of its courtship ritual.

The tour consisted of representatives from Smith’s group, Common Ground Capital, as well as conservation organization CEHMM, the State Land Office, The Nature Conservancy and RiverBank Conservation.

The males were easiest to spot due to their bright orange heads and distinctive mating dance. Females were a bit harder, resembling clumps of dirt.

For some people on the tour, the sight was a bittersweet one. The fear that this unique grassland species could be lost forever hung over the van.

Just days earlier, the endangered species listing for the lesser prairie chicken went into effect. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Species has broken the lesser prairie chicken into two populations for the listing. The southern population in New Mexico and west Texas is considered endangered while the northern population, which lives in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and parts of Texas is listed as threatened.

This is not the first time the species has been listed. The bird was listed as threatened in 2014, only to be removed in 2015 following a lawsuit filed by various groups including fossil fuel and ranching organizations.Shortly after, environmental groups petitioned once again to get the lesser prairie chicken listed.

“You’re looking at the best of the last,” Wayne Walker, CEO of Common Ground Capital, said prior to heading out to the ranch.

His organization is working with landowners to try to save the lesser prairie chicken through agreements that create easements for conservation.

Common Ground Capital’s program offers market value price for the land that is placed in an easement and provides payments to help maintain the land for the lesser prairie chicken.

The plot where the vans parked on the morning of March 30 belongs to neighboring ranchers who have entered into that program—Jim Weaver and Mack Kizer.

Out in the field, a male lesser prairie chicken displayed for about half a dozen females. At first, the female birds seemed unimpressed. He went from hen to hen, displaying his colorful feathers and inflating his air sacks to create a loud boom. After several attempts, one of the hens started watching his display.

Before anything could occur, the courtship was cut short when a young northern harrier—a type of bird of prey—swooped down at the lesser prairie chickens. The male ducked to avoid the talons and then took flight along with the females, heading toward taller grasses where they could hide from the predator. 

It’s still early in the lesser prairie chicken’s breeding season and the male still has time to find a mate. The lesser prairie chicken generally raises its clutch in May or June.

Willard Heck is the ranch manager for the Weaver family. In that role, part of what he does is ensure that the lesser prairie chicken has a good habitat.

Heck said the courtship displays the birds perform are happening “right now at this time of year all up and down the Great Plains all the way into Canada with different species of prairie grouse.” 

Grassland birds struggle as habitat is lost 

The lesser prairie chicken’s natural habitat includes mixed grasslands and shinnery oak. On the surface, the shinnery oak doesn’t look like much, especially in late March when the leaves have not yet grown back on the scraggly branches poking up out of the ground. About 90 percent of the tree’s biomass is below ground, with only a couple of feet sticking up out of the sandy soil. The shinnery oak serves as a vital anchor to the rolling sand dunes.

As dunes have been leveled and shinnery oak has been cleared to make way for agriculture, the bird has lost habitat.

Shinnery oak is toxic to cattle, which has led to ranchers eradicating it. However, The Nature Conservancy allows a small number of cattle—dictated by drought conditions—to graze on the prairie preserve it owns southeast of Portales. These cattle will graze on the grasses that grow among the shinnery oak stands.

David Hernandez

David Hernandez, stewardship biologist for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico

David Hernandez, a stewardship biologist for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, said the goal of the preserve is to protect the prairie habitat for species like the lesser prairie chicken. He said the land was “already a functioning prairie” when the agency acquired it. 

Oil production and cattle grazing has continued on the property. 

Hernandez said the preserve’s shinnery oak habitat also provides a home for the dunes sagebrush lizard.

He said it is important to protect the shinnery oak prairie landscape.

“It’s unique to this area and it’s disappearing quickly,” he said.

While a variety of shinnery oak can also be found in the Four Corners region of Utah and Arizona, the type that grows on the preserve is only found in western Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico, western Texas and isolated areas in Kansas. This overlaps with the lesser prairie chicken range.

A study published last year in the journal Remote Sensing’s special Wildlife Ecology for a Dynamic Future edition states that 56 percent of lesser prairie chicken habitat has been lost over the past 115 years.

Both the grasslands and the shinnery oak have been eradicated to make way for agriculture, towns, roads and industries.

The drought-resistant shinnery oak communities are important for the lesser prairie chickens that use them for nesting.

Shinnery oak grows on the Milnesand Prairie Preserve

Last year’s State of the Birds report, released by the Audubon Society, showed that grassland birds are facing the fastest decline in numbers compared to birds living in other ecosystems. About 34 percent of grassland birds have been lost since 1970.

The report identified 70 birds that it described as tipping point species. These tipping point species have had their populations cut at least in half in the past 50 years and, if nothing changes, could lose another 50 percent or more of their population in the next half century. The lesser prairie chicken is one of the birds on that list.

The report had more than just grim news. The 2022 report showed that the numbers of riparian birds such as geese, swans and ducks have increased. This comes amid efforts to improve, restore and conserve riparian habitats, which appear to have reversed the trend of declining riparian bird species.

Efforts are now underway that could help with the grassland birds.

Locally, that includes the passage of New Mexico’s SB 9, the Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund. This legislation creates a dedicated funding stream for conservation programs such as the Healthy Soils program.

One reason that grassland species are declining is that they are losing their habitat or their habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented.

For birds like lesser prairie chickens that need large swaths of wide, open land, this fragmentation can have an outsized impact.

Some human activities have less impact on the birds than others. For example, the lesser prairie chickens have been known to use the areas cleared around oil fields as lekking grounds. 

Agricultural practices can also, in some ways, benefit the bird, especially in times of drought.

With limited precipitation, the pivot sprinklers that water the agricultural fields can provide needed moisture. 

The lesser prairie chicken also enjoys snacking on grains like sorghum or crops like alfalfa. 

It provides water and food for the lesser prairie chicken.

When agricultural plots are intermixed with natural landscape, the chickens can benefit, Heck said.

But not every area is like that and in some parts of the bird’s historical range, there isn’t natural landscaping intermixed with the agricultural fields.

“They need more than just a dining room,” Heck said. “They gotta have a bedroom and lounge. There’s different types of places that they need and they need a place to nest and stuff. They’re not going to do all of their functions on this wheatfield, for example, or on the edges.”

Heck said agriculture can also harm the lesser prairie chicken by use of pesticides that eliminate or significantly reduce the insect population.

The lesser prairie chicken is an omnivorous bird that eats both plant material and insects.

Endangered species listing faces opposition amid concerns about agriculture and energy industry impacts

As the lesser prairie chicken was added once again to the list of endangered and threatened species, states, agriculture and cattle organizations and energy industry associations fought back with lawsuits.

These organizations are concerned about economic impacts as plans may have to be modified to prevent habitat destruction.

There are programs and efforts in place that can address many of the concerns that these groups have, listing proponents say.

That includes conservation banking programs like the one offered by Common Ground Capital. The listing is anticipated to bring an increased demand for the conservation agreements that Common Ground Capital offers. 

Walker said one advantage of the conservation easements is that it provides permanent protection for the habitat. 

Other programs like candidate conservation agreements that are done through groups like CEHMM, a Carlsbad-based organization, do not involve permanent conservation easements but can help industries mitigate the risks associated with doing business in lesser prairie chicken habitat.

Millions of acres of land in New Mexico is currently covered by candidate conservation agreements.

CEHMM holds the permits for the candidate conservation agreements for the lesser prairie chicken in New Mexico. These voluntary agreements provide a way to preserve habitat both on federal and private lands.

The agreements are similar to an insurance policy. Should a species be listed, those who have candidate conservation agreements will not be subject to additional restrictions as long as they are following the requirements of the agreement, which include allowing CEHMM officials to come onto the property to conduct surveys and monitoring. 

The funding for the efforts comes from the fees the industries pay. 

Because the candidate conservation agreements provide some assurances, industry and landowners who could be impacted by the listing often chose to enroll in the program prior to the listing.

The industry groups are required to pay into the program, but landowners do not have to pay to access the assurances that are available through candidate conservation agreements.

The ability to enroll in the candidate conservation agreements for the lesser prairie chicken closed in January.

Prior to the closing of the enrollment period, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association hosted a virtual meeting, in conjunction with the New Mexico State Land Office, to help educate its members on how to take advantage of these programs before the endangered species listing went into effect. CEHMM participated in the webinar as well.

“Our goal through the program is to really keep your activities, your work going on the landscape unaffected by a listing decision,” Emily Wirth, the CEO of CEHMM, told the participants in the virtual meeting.

Those who did enroll in the program not only have the assurances that their activities won’t be harmed by the lesser prairie chicken listing. They also have assurances should the dunes sagebrush lizard also be listed as endangered. 

Additionally, those enrolled in the candidate conservation agreements can access CEHMM’s incidental take permit. That means they won’t face legal consequences should their activities lead to the unintentional death of a lesser prairie chicken. 

Walker said these are different from conservation banking because they do not result in permanent easements and are often focused on restoring habitat that has already been damaged. 

CEHMM, for example, has focused on removing mesquite from lesser prairie chicken habitat.

Additionally, Walker said conservation banking provides more long-term protection of habitat. This is in part because the conservation easements are permanent while participants in the candidate conservation agreements can choose to remove their land from enrollment.

Walker said conservation banking allows landowners to receive payment for a permanent land easement as well as money for efforts to maintain the habitat.

While the opportunity to enroll in the candidate conservation agreement through CEHMM has closed, conservation banking programs that offer payment in exchange for a conservation easement remain an option for landowners who have property in the lesser prairie chicken habitat.

The conservation banking programs are funded through the sale of offset credits for development projects that will lead to ecological damage.

Demand for renewable energy places habitat at risk

From the lek, the need for conserved habitat is clear.

Just beyond the fields, the Sagamore Wind Project’s turbines turned in the morning wind, creating a visible backdrop for the lesser prairie chicken.

The bird avoids tall structures like windmills and one of the greatest threats it faces is habitat loss and fragmentation.  

Wind farm developers will pay landowners in eastern New Mexico thousands of dollars per turbine that is built on their land. In a part of the state where people are land rich but dollar poor, that type of money is a big incentive. The median household income in Roosevelt County is less than $50,000 and more than 20 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.

This makes it so that landowners facing economic decisions may choose wind development over conservation.

Some landowners in the region are actively seeking wind developers that are looking for places to locate wind turbines. In the Floyd area, a landowner has hung a sign on a pasture fence stating “wind generators wanted” and advertising 900 acres of land.

The Sagamore turbines are on land adjacent to the Weaver family’s ranch. Heck recalled when the developers came to the area to build the facility.

“They sited where they wanted to have their stuff with no consideration at all for prairie chickens,” he said. “They didn’t even know it was an issue. And we educated them to the fact that it is an issue.”

Once the developers learned about the lesser prairie chickens, they chose to locate the wind turbines farther from the bird’s habitat. The original plan had the wind turbines right up against the Milnesand Prairie Preserve, a 28,000 acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. This property has some of the best lesser prairie chicken habitat in the state. More than 400 birds have been counted on the preserve and there are 80 known leks, including 50 active lekking sites.

Walker has experience in the wind industry and he said the industry “ebbs and flows” due to tax credits. He said when new projects are proposed, they often have to meet deadlines to receive tax credits before those opportunities expire.

“Environmental due diligence tends not to happen on the front end. It happens, unfortunately, on the back end,” Walker said.

He said the wind industry is growing fast and that has led to pressure to build in areas “where they didn’t do enough homework up front.”

Utility customers are often unaware of the habitat where the electrical generation assets are being built or transmission lines are sited. Walker said customers often don’t think about their electricity much more than looking at the cost on the utility bill.

“It’s hard for people to connect all the way upstream,” he said.

Climate change creates challenges for the birds

Another challenge that the lesser prairie chicken faces is climate change.

Heck has lived in southeastern New Mexico for about two decades and he said he has seen the shift in climate over those years.

While he said the area used to receive enough snow that people had to plow their way out of their driveways in the winter. But now the area gets very little snow, usually only a couple of inches that quickly melts.

Heck also participates in the voluntary Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS. That involves monitoring precipitation and Heck tracks the rainfall they receive. He said the area will go weeks without precipitation.

During hot, dry years, fewer of the lesser prairie chicken chicks survive because there is less food to consume.

Shinnery oaks cover dunes in the Milnesand Prairie Preserve