State recommends against listing prairie chicken

By Bryant Million: PNT Staff Writer

After a six-year investigation of lesser prairie chicken populations and habitats, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish announced June 9 in a press release that they will recommend against listing the species as threatened or endangered in the state.

According to the results of the study posted on the NMDGF Web site, the number of chickens counted in leks, or breeding grounds, in New Mexico increased about 83 percent from 2001 through 2005.

Dawn Davis, of the NMDGF and who participated in the study, said the increases are most likely due to the last two springs’ above average precipitation and more participation from private landowners in habitat improvement projects. She said the chicken populations are also naturally cyclic, and they tend to fluctuate about every 10 years.

Davis said that she supported the department’s decision based on the population increases of the prairie chickens shown in the study over the last five years.

“The prairie chickens are very unlikely to be threatened in the near future.”

The investigation was initiated because of the prairie chicken population decreases in the 1990s that occurred mainly because of loss of habitat, urbanization of the land and droughts, Davis said. Only Kansas and Texas allow hunting of the chickens.

Tish McDaniel of the Nature Conservancy said, “It will be good if the chickens are not listed as endangered because they will not be under complete government control, and more people can work together to preserve the species.”

The recommendation not to list the chickens as endangered is only for the state of New Mexico and not at a federal level.

However, the prairie chickens were petitioned in 1995 to be candidates in the Endangered Species Act, Davis said. They are reviewed each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and could still be put on the federal endangered species list in the future as long as they remain candidates.

The study focused on chicken habitats in eastern New Mexico and included reviewing literature and survey data over the species, studying population trends over several years and reviewing the chickens’ habitat status, such as what threatened them and how much land was available for them.

Davis said the recommendation not to list the species as endangered was also supported by the department committing two new positions to management and conservation efforts, and because there is so much cooperation between the department and private landowners to benefit the species.

The State Game Commission accepted the NMDGF’s recommendation at its April meeting and will make a final decision and take action at the Nov. 16 commission meeting in Farmington.

The NMDGF will conduct a public meeting to discuss and receive comments from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sept. 15 at Clovis Community College, room 101.

John Clemmons, a rancher who partnered with the USFWS in 2003 to set aside 206 acres of land near Elida for 10 years to protect the chickens, said they are worth preserving because they are a part of our ranchers’ heritage.

“They are just a likable species, and most people enjoy seeing them. We just need to take extra precautions in protecting them.”

Prairie chickens are only found in fragmented pockets of habitat in the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, according to the National Audubon Society Web site.

They inhabit central-eastern New Mexico and are well known for their mating rituals. Milnesand hosts the annual Prairie Chicken Festival where participants watch the early morning mating rituals on nearby ranches.

The lesser prairie chickens are round, stocky ground-dwelling birds with uniformly barred plumage and rounded tails, according to the Audubon Web site. Males are famous for their courtship displays during which they inflate reddish pouches of skin on the side of their necks.