Nature Conservancy on mission to save lesser prairie chickens

By Tony Parra: PNT Staff Writer

Members of the Nature Conservancy chapter in New Mexico listened about the importance of preserving the habitat of the lesser prairie-chicken on Friday night, then on Saturday got a first-hand look at what they were preserving.
There was a reception held at Eastern New Mexico University President Steven Gamble’s house before a dinner in the Zia room on Campus Union Building on the ENMU campus for the members. The Milnesand Prairie Preserve is The Nature Conservancy’s first project in Eastern New Mexico.
“It’s been a dream of mine to have the National Conservancy involved in this part of the state,” Tish McDaniel said. “They (National Conservancy members) are recognizing what we locals already know — that this is a beautiful part of the state.”
Representatives left at 4 a.m. on Saturday to arrive in Milnesand and set up camp to be able to view the lesser prairie-chicken during its mating rituals. Lesser-prairie Chicken males also go toe-to-toe in sparing matches for the female’s attention.
McDaniel said overgrazing, excessive oil-drilling and urbanization have had a hand in the declining prairie-chicken numbers. She said the fourth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival held the previous weekend was a success with approximately 175 people involved in the event.
“Our mission is to preserve the process that provides diversity of life,” Bill Waldman, director of The Nature Conservancy of New Mexico. “We want to be effective members of the communities where we preserve land. We don’t want to just put a fence on the land we purchased.”
People from across the state traveled to Portales and Milnesand to be able to view the lesser prairie-chicken in its habitat. Jim Brown, a University of New Mexico biology professor, said he has lived in the southwest all of his life but has never had a chance to view the leks.
“I’ve never been able to do this,” Brown said. “I think there’s been more awareness in the last few years about the declining numbers.”
Brown brought along a colleague, Richard Sibly, a professor from the University of Reading in Reading, England. Sibly said he and Brown are working together on biology projects and has been in Albuquerque for two weeks.
“I’ve come a long way to see this,” Sibly said. “I teach about bird leking, but I’ve never been able to see it. You don’t get many opportunities like this one in England.”
The Nature Conservancy organization purchased a ranch with more than 18,500 acres from Roy and Shirley Creamer. The land has more than 40 lesser prairie-chicken leks, used as breeding grounds, and is located near Milnesand, according to the Nature Conservancy officials.
The Nature Conservancy is an organization which buys land to conserve it. The Nature Conservancy chapter in New Mexico is more than 25 years old and the chapter has preserved more than 1.3 million acres.
The organization also owns the Santa Fe Canyon preserve, which has willows, songbirds, deer bear and even beavers. It also owns the Gila Riparian Preserve, the Gray Ranch and the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.