Prairie chickens making comeback

Joe Whitehead of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Clovis shows a field trip group attending the sixth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival a clump of native little bluestem grass. (Freedom Newspapers: Karl Terry)

By Karl Terry: Freedom Newspapers

The lesser prairie chicken was once prolific across the shortgrass prairies of the Great Plains. The birds were often the only meat on a pioneer family’s table in hard times, which never seemed to go away for the plains sodbuster.

Experts say the birds nearly met their demise, not from hunting, but from loss of habitat during the 20th century.

Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service includes the species as eligible for listing through the Endangered Species Act. Landowners and several groups working to protect the lesser prairie chicken won a major battle in the last year when the New Mexico Game Commission recommended they not be included on the state’s endangered species list.

“It would limit what we do out here because then everything we do would be federally regulated,” said Tish McDaniel, The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Shortgrass Prairie project coordinator. “We don’t want it to become listed because that’s a statement right there that we’re losing.”

The Roosevelt County native, who now lives in Clovis, said chicken numbers are holding steady in this area lately and even showing a slight incline after a severe crash a little more than a decade ago.

McDaniel’s family’s close ties with the Jim Williamson family, ranchers in southern Roosevelt County, planted the seeds for what she would later pursue as her life goal. She said her sisters brought her to the prairie chicken grounds on the Williamson ranch in a box when she was 6 months old. She says she knew the prairie was where she was meant to be.

McDaniel said the key to saving and improving prairie chicken habitat lies with landowners, who ranch on most of the prime land for the birds. She tries to match federal and state programs and other conservation sources to a cattleman’s goals for his land. She said at the same time she’s winning valuable habitat for prairie chickens.

On a field trip Saturday at the High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, Natural Resource Conservation Service Director Joe Whitehead explained to a group of nature-lovers the nuances of the sandhills and prairies of southern Roosevelt County and what makes good habitat for prairie chickens.

“It’s sort of ‘build it and they will come,’” Whitehead said. “If you don’t have good habitat, they’re not going to be here.”

He said a mixture of various types of vegetation, including shin oak and native grasses, is what biologists say is crucial for the birds. He also said that rotational grazing is important as well.

He talked about the possible use of herbicides to curb the shin oak enough to allow growth of native grasses, which the birds favor for nesting. Ideally, he said a mosaic of different vegetation may be best for the prairie chicken.

Whitehead’s group toured state-owned “prairie chicken area” lands, but he said ranches offer the greatest hope.

The Nature Conservancy has purchased the former Creamer Ranch in Roosevelt County and leases it for ranching under strict management practices. The Weaver Ranch and the Williamson Ranch are among many that are actively seeking to improve prairie chicken habitat, according to Whitehead and McDaniel.