Local prairie chickens get unique protection

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Sitting in the dark in the middle of nowhere with people I’d just met, everyone in the van was focused on one thing — prairie chickens. Soon, we started hearing them.

I grew up around the prairie gobblers but their numbers were never great and I never paid them much mind. Bob white and blue quail and pheasants were practical to pursue with a shotgun as a young man and anytime I saw a prairie chicken it was just a chance encounter.

Now here I was in mid-life amid a group of folks who had never seen a prairie chicken in the wild and the arid plains and sandhills of eastern New Mexico was as foreign to them as the dark side of the moon. But strangely enough, we all had more in common than might be apparent.

To start with, the desire to get out of bed a couple of hours before the sun rises to observe and learn a little more about the natural world around us is a pretty good bond. The concern that a uniquely adapted creature is in danger of extinction from choices made by man over the years is another tie.

I had heard about the lesser prairie chicken’s mating rituals, carried out on traditional leks or “booming grounds” all my life. Somehow until last weekend during the sixth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival, I had never had the chance or taken the time to investigate the birds queer dance before. I’m glad I finally got the chance.

In covering the event and talking to the people involved in putting it on, as well as the people there to watch the birds for the first time, I was struck with how different this environmental effort is than most.

Across the West, the mere mention of the wolf brings about passion from those who feel they’re protecting and defending the wolf and an equal and opposite reaction from ranchers trying to make a living on the land who worry for their calves and lambs.

With the prairie chicken there seems to be a recognition by both the ranchers, on whose land most of the prairie chicken habitat exists, and the bird-lovers and ecologists that they’re in the same boat together.

Biologists and conservationists recognize that having ranchers and landowners on their side and well educated about what’s good for the prairie chickens is good for the recovery of the species. Likewise lots of ranchers understand that balancing the ecology on their rangeland will bring about more chicken numbers and make their operation profitable over the long run.

The Endangered Species Act, devised to bring people together for stewardship of the natural world around us, has instead become one of the biggest wedges between nature-lovers and those who make their living from the land and its natural resources. Not in Milnesand.

Out on the plains south of Portales, ranchers and nature-lovers are coming together over pancakes and hamburgers in celebration of the fact that they seem to be gaining ground on prairie chicken restoration without the government dropping the ESA hammer. Both persuasions know that if the species, which is listed as eligible for the Endangered Species List, actually becomes listed things could change drastically.

It seems that what’s working in the Milnesand area is that everyone, from the Nature Conservancy to New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to the ranchers and residents of the area, are highlighting the positive and celebrating the magnificent species. Other areas with endangered species battles going on would do well to take a look at the laid-back approach being pursued on the Llano Estacado.