By Leonard Krishtalka
The lesser prairie chicken won’t generate much of a buzz in Kansas or the nation. Few know what it is, fewer still what it looks like, and even fewer what good it might be. The name “lesser prairie chicken” lacks the star power of polar bear, Bengal tiger or giant panda. Among birds, it doesn’t evoke the patriotism of the golden eagle, the majesty of the California condor, or the rah rah of Kansas University’s mythical bird, the Jayhawk. And, it’s a “lesser” chicken — not a great blue chicken, like the heron, or an emperor chicken, like the penguin.
The Dust Bowl tried to wipe the lesser prairie chicken from the prairie — their geographic ranges were almost identical. Map the Dust Bowl — the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, eastern New Mexico — and you’ve mapped the home territory of the lesser prairie chicken. It’s not a migratory bird, so it can only hunker down in the short-grass prairie, enduring the snow and cold and rain and drought and wind and dust.
But it can’t hunker down between the rows of wheat or corn, or nest in the grasses and sagebrush lost to gas wells and transmission lines. What the Dust Bowl couldn’t extinguish, we might a century later. The numbers are grim. The bird’s population has plummeted 88 percent from an original 300,000 to 37,000. Kansas, by virtue of its remaining short-grass prairie, is habitat to half of these, about 17,600. The bird’s original range in Kansas, about 30,000 square miles, shrunk by almost two-thirds to 11,000 square miles by the 1950s, and to 7,000 square miles by 2012 — much of it chopped up into small, habitat islands. As the grasses go, so does the bird. What canaries were to coal mines, the lesser prairie chicken is to the short-grass prairie of Kansas — a harbinger of health or harm.
As a result, on March 27, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared the lesser prairie chicken a threatened species. Two reactions followed, both extreme, both wrong, both hammering the feds from opposite ends. Kansas, turning this into a bogus states’ rights issue, is suing to de-list the bird. Other groups decry that the USFWS didn’t go far enough.
The right reaction is to applaud and adopt the range-wide conservation plan that a consortium of landowners, agriculture and energy companies, and state wildlife agencies across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas developed in concert with the USFWS. The plan targets the lesser prairie chicken’s endangered ecosystem, rather than the species per se, a strategy long recommended by conservation biologists, ecologists, and natural resource managers. It is designed to restore, increase and protect the bird’s habitat, and almost double its population to 67,000 in the next ten years. The USFWS endorsed the voluntary plan as an “unprecedented collaborative … consistent with criteria for conserving the species.”
Fundamentally, the ecosystem approach is consistent with how nature works. It is also consistent with how society works. A complex web of landowners, managers, businesses and jurisdictions govern that ecosystem. When all these players meet at the most beneficial intersections of natural and human interests, it will safeguard our environments and their species.