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
Landowner Dedicates Retirement to Conserving Lesser Prairie-Chicken
In the late 1980s, Jim Weaver retired from his work with the Peregrine Fund and moved to a ranch in southeastern New Mexico, an area where decades before he had hunted Lesser Prairie-Chickens with his falcons, hoping to do so again. Little did he realize how the plight of the prairie-chicken had continued to evolve and how deeply he would get involved in efforts to conserve this bird.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is a prairie grouse species that may be added to the Endangered Species List. One of very few birds endemic to the United States, it is only found in a five-state area of the Southern Great Plains. Its habitat is comprised of grasslands and shrublands including shinnery, a climax plant community of shin-oak and grasses that grows on sandy plains, sand dunes, and sand hills and is endemic to the region. Whole-scale conversion to agriculture, expansion of oil and gas exploration, and habitat degradation and fragmentation have had a tremendous negative impact on this bird. Once estimated to have a population of over five million, this bird has now been reduced to approximately one percent of that figure.
When Jim moved to his ranch near Lingo, New Mexico, he found himself in an area of Lesser Prairie-Chicken abundance and also at the center of a controversy about how to manage this land for Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Within the state, movements were afoot to designate the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as threatened—conservationists were concerned about eradication of shin-oak, the primary shrub in shinnery, and oil and gas exploration was booming, causing additional concern. In 2001, the Bureau of Land Management convened a working group of ranchers, environmentalists, oil and gas representatives, and federal and state agency representatives to develop plans to conserve the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sand Dune Lizzard, which occupy much of the same habitat. The effort took significantly longer than expected but resulted in a workable plan (the “Conservation Strategies”) that has been in the implementation stage ever since.
Some of the recommendations of this plan were to determine appropriate land management techniques, including how and where to manage shin-oak. The prevailing theory was that the chicken did best when there was a monoculture of this shrub across the landscape. Weaver, having seen what the landscape looked like over several decades and how shinnery and grass coexisted under differing conditions, didn’t believe this theory and set out to prove otherwise. On his ranch, he worked to suppress shin-oak on areas between sand dunes but allowed the oak to maintain its presence on the dunes, where it kept the dunes stable.
In addition, through the Grasslans Charitable Foundation, which he helped to start, he funded a ten-year study on this type of land management to determine the effects on the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as well as the rest of the ecosystem, including other grassland birds. He wanted to run a viable cattle ranch, so he worked with researchers to set stocking and rotation rates to allow for an appropriate experimental design. He also developed a working relationship with several researchers at Texas Tech University, across the border in Lubbock, Texas, and allowed students to conduct research on his ranch using the research design already in place.
Weaver’s conservation efforts didn’t stop at his property line. He supported a New Mexico Department of Game and Fish large-scale study of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken by providing a research base for the biologists from the Sutton Avian Research Center out of Oklahoma. When he saw the researchers needed a local base, he bought a building in the town of Milnesand and loaned it to the researchers.
The yard of this facility is now converted to a camping area once a year to help house participants in the Milnesand Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival, which Weaver helped start in conjunction with the New Mexico office of The Nature Conservancy. This festival, now in its eleventh year, allows visitors to watch and photograph—in a responsible way—Lesser Prairie-Chickens dancing on their leks. In addition, festival attendees are educated on Lesser Prairie-Chicken biology, conservation efforts, and history and ecology of the area, including birds, playas, plants, and reptiles.
Since then, Jim has been busy expanding his ranch to create large areas of unfragmented landscape for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and now has about 25,000 acres under his management. To offset the increasing amount of sod-busting occurring in the region, he has placed most of those acres into the NRCS Grassland Reserve Program, which provides a permanent easement so that the lands will not be broken up. With this expansion, his ranch now abuts several New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Wildlife Management areas—amplifying benefits to the prairie-chicken.
The study on Weaver’s ranch has now concluded and several research papers detailing the findings will be coming out in the near future. The first of these was presented at the Prairie-Grouse Technical Council meetings in Kansas this October. The study proved what Weaver had known all along, that low doses of chemical treatment on shin-oak and maintaining a mosaic of grass and shrubland will provide appropriate habitat for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken—habitat they can “hide in, see out of, and walk through.” The only treatment that did not provide appropriate habitat was in the pasture that was treated, but not grazed. The supposition is the grasses that returned became too dense to allow for nesting.
Other results showed that three years after treatment all the components of a healthy prairie had returned in force, including a variety of prairie forbs, critical to young chicks as they mature during the summer. Nesting by the chickens was documented only several years after the treatments began, bolstering evidence obtained from Kansas that these birds take some time before re-occupying appropriate habitat.
In addition, the treatment provides for a much greater diversity of prairie birds than a monoculture of shin-oak. Loggerhead Shrikes, Grasshopper Sparrows and both meadowlark species breed in this restored habitat, while hordes of Chestnut-collared Longspurs and several grassland sparrows occupy the ranch in the winter. Lark Buntings migrate through in large numbers in both spring and fall while Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons hunt over the prairie here.
For Weaver, what began as a love of hunting with falcons became an obsession with his intended prey. He has come to understand, appreciate and love the bounty that managing appropriate habitat for Lesser Prairie-Chicken can provide. Weaver’s plans for the future include reintroducing fire to the landscape and learning how the birds adapt. All these studies have and will continue to contribute to critical knowledge gaps in the ecology of this threatened bird.