Photo: Lesser Prairie-Chicken
"A smaller, paler version of the Greater Prairie-Chicken, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is now found only in restricted areas of five states in the southern Great Plains." Learn more about this and other birds at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hetrick.
In The News
The Nature Conservancy Buys Texas Ranch in Prime Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Texas made significant in-roads in the conservation of prairie birds with its purchase of a 6,000-acre ranch in the High Plains of West Texas. The Fitzgerald ranch is adjacent to more than half a million acres of contiguous prairie spanning from Roosevelt County in New Mexico to Terry County, Texas — a veritable habitat haven for Lesser Prairie-Chickens and other prairie birds. This is TNC’s first land purchase in the Texas Panhandle, and probably not its last.
“We’ve always wanted to do something in the Panhandle, but the projects weren’t available,” said Jeff Francell, Director of Land Protection for TNC Texas. “The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was able to step up with some funding. That gave us the courage to do it. This deal is opening the door to others.”
The seeds of the deal were sown more than 10 years ago when Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologists began working with area ranchers on Lesser Prairie-Chicken research projects. Trust developed between TPWD and landowners over the years, and when the Fitzgeralds were no longer able to ranch the property, they turned to TPWD for help to find a stewardship-minded buyer. TPWD was able to provide a $1.2 million grant through the Federal Aid Wildlife Restoration Program to help TNC purchase the ranch.
“We started off on a very good foot,” said Heather Whitlaw, Lesser Prairie-Chicken Interstate Working Group Coordinator with TPWD. “The people of Yoakum County seem to be very comfortable and agreeable with this purchase. They know the Fitzgeralds and trust our agency, and by extension granted that trust to The Nature Conservancy.”
“I’ve been really impressed with the stewardship ethic of landowners I’ve dealt with in the area,” Francell said. “They are proud of how this has all turned out.”
Local prairie-chicken advocates and conservation groups played a big role in drawing attention to this project by TNC. Individuals from organizations like the Sibley Nature Center, June Leland Wildlife Foundation, TNC New Mexico, TPWD, and individual TNC Texas board members were integral to the success of the project.
“We kept hearing rumblings from all over. Everyone was talking about this project,” Whitlaw said. “This led TNC to see that there was a grass roots effort with a bunch of partners and variety of people interested. It’s quite powerful when you can motivate these people to speak their mind and support a project.”
Although this is TNC Texas’ first purchase in the Panhandle, the conservation group would like to do more in the area, including hiring a full-time staff position. TNC is currently fund-raising for a position and for additional acquisitions near the Fitzgerald Ranch.
“There is an awful lot of development pressure in the Panhandle. Conversion of grasslands to wind farms and irrigated cropland are just a few.” Francell said. “It’s nice to be able to hold onto some big chunks of good habitat.”