Prairie chicken propagation plan has risks

07/19/2014 6:13 PM

07/19/2014 6:14 PM

Biologist Mike Morrow speaks from experience when he criticizes Gov. Sam Brownback’s plans for raising and releasing lesser prairie chickens to bolster the bird’s populations.

He’s been involved in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s program of raising and releasing the endangered Attwater prairie chicken, a relative of lesser prairie chickens, for more than 20 years. He described propagation as “a last resort,” and said it has a low success rate of survival and high costs.

Terry Rossignol works with Morrow at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coastal prairie and said it costs more than $1,000 per released chick, of which about 16 percent survive their first year on the refuge. Morrow said survival rates are about 50 percent annually for adult birds. The birds are raised in four zoos, and released into the wild at 6 to 12 weeks of age.

On July 10, Brownback announced the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the Kansas Department of Agriculture will start a program of raising and releasing the birds that were placed on the threatened species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year.

“Ultimately it’s always a habitat issue,” Morrow said of any kind of declining prairie chicken population. “If you have wild birds, which Kansas does, trans-locating from other populations would be a much better alternative. Propagation is not a cheap thing to do.”

Rossignol said 200 to 400 chicks from captive Attwaters have been released annually since the first pilot project in 1995. He estimates the current Attwater population at about 100 birds in the wild going into this spring’s breeding season. The Texas Propagation program costs about $500,000 per year.

“I’m almost convinced had we waited another year or two, there might not be any Attwater prairie chickens today,” he said.

More than 1 million Attwaters lived on the coastal prairies around 1900. The population was at about 500 birds when some were taken into captivity for the captive breeding program in the early 1990s. The an all-time low of 40 Attwaters was in 2005, despite 10 years of releases.

A pre-nesting count this spring put America’s lesser prairie chicken population at an estimated 22, 440 through the bird’s range that includes parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The population was estimated to have been 18,000 in 2013 and 36,000 in 2012. Severe drought across the region cut lesser prairie chicken numbers in half several consecutive years. Biologists estimate Kansas as more than 70 percent of the nation’s lesser prairie chickens.

As well as lack of habitat, Morrow said young Attwater prairie chickens were dying because fire ants were out-competing young birds for the insects they needed to survive. The fire ants were also killing some young prairie chickens. The Attwater program has seen some survival improvement since biologists started eradicating fire ants in some areas.

Morrow hopes Kansas’ lesser prairie chicken population responds well to this spring’s rains.

“Maybe if you get a bump in the population, it will make the captive breeding program go away,” he said.

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