By Karl Terry, PNT Managing Editor
A half-hour before daylight Saturday on the prairie west of Milnesand, eight people waited in bleary-eyed anticipation for a look at the first lesser prairie chicken of the day.
“I think they’re still asleep,” one voice from the darkened passenger van spoke up.
A few minutes later a cackle could be heard outside the van signaling the arrival of the birds.
“It sounds like they’re laughing,” Sylvia Tazbir of Albuquerque whispered.
As the day dawned on the area where the van was parked on an abandoned oil and gas well pad, male prairie chickens began their mating dance on all sides of the van. Lifting tufts of feathers along the back of their necks that looked like ears and filling bright orange sacks with air, the birds stamped their feet and filled the air with an eery call.
“Our hope is after people see these prairie chickens, they’ll be invested in conserving their future,” said Kevin Holladay of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. “Ultimately, that means we have to take care of the larger habitat and community.”
Holladay, who works in Santa Fe, was guiding visitors to the seventh annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival, an event sponsored by NMDGF, the Nature Conservancy, protection agency Grasslans and the people of the Milnesand community.
He said that one of the big problems facing lesser prairie chickens is that their populations, though spread out over five states, are isolated and there is no genetic flow among the groups. That, along with an alarming drop in their numbers several years ago, has made the lesser prairie chicken eligible to be listed as an endangered species, but so far that hasn’t happened.
Tish McDaniel of the Nature Conservancy says the festival accepts just 100 reservations each year, and each year it is sold out. She says every group that has gone out has seen prairie chickens. A variety of other activities are planned during the festival weekend, but it’s the chickens that people come to see.
“The first morning people are very apprehensive; they’re kind of nervous; they’re not sure what’s going to happen,” McDaniel said. “The minute you get them out there and they see birds, that stress level is gone.”