Report: Lesser prairie chicken survival may decline

By Christina Calloway

PNT senior writer

Lesser prairie chicken nest survival may decline to a level too low to sustain its current population by 2050 because of climate change, according to a recent report by Texas Tech University and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report points to the effects of temperature and precipitation change on lesser prairie chicken reproduction on the southern High Plains as reasons for a possible decline.

This would not look favorable for those in the community who fear a declining population of the bird leading to a threatened listing on the federal register of endangered species, which could threaten landowners and the oil and gas industry with rules and regulations to protect the bird’s population.

The grouse’s population in the eastern New Mexico and west Texas area was at 3,000 in 2012 and about 30,000 among the five states it occupies, according to a New Mexico Game and Fish study.

“If we continue to get good precipitation, we can see an increase,” said Willard Heck, a Roosevelt County rancher who helped with the report.

Scientists looked at modeled predictions of climate change and reproductive data from lesser prairie chickens from 2001-2011 to determine how weather conditions affect reproductive success in the southern High Plains.

In the report, scientists conducted 1,000 model simulations using future weather variables to predict future reproductive parameters for this species. Climate forecasts indicate that the southern High Plains will become drier with more frequent extreme heat events and decreased precipitation.

Increased temperatures and reduced humidity may lead to lesser prairie chicken egg death or nest abandonment, according to the report. The research showed that warm winter temperatures had the largest negative effect on reproductive success.

“Lesser prairie-chicken survival relies on the combination of habitat and climate, and larger areas of habitat provide more opportunities for them to survive a difficult climate,” said USGS scientist and study co-author Clint Boal. “Larger expanses of habitat means that more chickens will live and nest there, allowing for better odds that some nests will be successful.”

Heck says the chicken’s habitat is not being destroyed in Roosevelt County so the only threat to the bird is the lack of precipitation.

“It all has to do with weather,” Heck said. “If the population is given favorable sufficient rainfall, there would be vegetation of insects to pull off a brood of chicks.”

Tish McDaniel with the Nature Conservancy in Clovis said recent rains were too late to help this year’s nesting, which takes place in the spring but they will help next year.

“The rains this year have been great but it was too late for nesting and recruitment for our brood of lesser prairie chickens but it will help us for 2014,” McDaniel said.

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