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Preserving the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Oklahomans work together to save a struggling species


The 14,000-acre Selman Ranch in northwest Oklahoma offers sightings of the lesser prairie-chicken. Approximately 10,000-20,000 acres are required to sustain one lek (breeding ground), which can consist of up to 100 birds.


By Laura Araujo


ue Selman grew up on her family’s ranch in Harper County, 25 miles north of Woodward. Seventeen years ago, the Northwestern Elec- tric co-op member moved back home to manage the 14,000-acre ranch, which has been in her family since her grandparents settled the land in the late 1800s. Each year, bird watchers and photographers travel from across Oklahoma and the United States to the Selman Ranch, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the land’s least-common inhabitants—the lesser prairie-chicken (LEPC).


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“I’m not sure how many prairie-chickens we have today—not enough,” Selman said. “There were a lot of them up until the 80s.”


Kenny Knowles is a landowner in Ellis County, 45 miles southwest of Woodward, and serves as board president for Northwestern Electric Cooperative. The LEPC population on his ranch has declined notice- ably as well.


“I’ve been around prairie-chickens all my life, but there were a lot more of them 30 years ago,” Knowles said. “I grew up and went to school in the 60s and there were thousands of them out here. Even into the late 80s and early 90s we still had a lot of them on the ranch.”


The plight of the prairie-chicken According to Ken Collins, fi sh and wildlife biolo- gist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the LEPC is a gray-brown species of prairie grouse. A ground-nesting bird that makes its home in grass- lands with some shrub cover, the LEPC doesn’t live near trees or other tall objects, for fear of hawks, falcons and other avian predators perching above.


30 OKLAHOMA LIVING


Bobcats and coyotes are some of its larger predators, while raccoons, possums, skunks and snakes invade prairie-chicken nests. The bird feeds on insects, seeds, grains and leaves, which provide its main source of water. From March through May, birds mate on a breeding ground called a lek where males perform their mating display. Although the LEPC can fl y, it is non-migratory and typically lives out its life within a few miles of the lek.


The bird, which also inhabits portions of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, has found its way into the news as a candidate for listing under the En- dangered Species Act. In 1998, the FWS designated the LEPC as a candidate, which means that a listing as threatened or endangered is needed to protect the species. Collins said the LEPC historically inhabited 22 Oklahoma counties; today the bird is believed to per- sist in eight or nine counties in northwest Oklahoma. However, no one is certain about the size of the LEPC population. “How many prairie-chickens there are is a big question,” Kent Fletcher, environmental specialist at Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC), said. “The state of Oklahoma is trying to get a good count right now.”


The most recent FWS survey data from 2000 esti- mates that fewer than 3,000 LEPCs remain in Okla- homa. The total population in its fi ve-state habitat is estimated at 35,000 to 65,000 birds, based on the candidate assessment from 2010. The fi ve LEPC-pop- ulated states have been working together to develop improved survey technology, including the use of aerial surveys. “All fi ve states are going to implement better sur- vey technology this year,” Collins said. “In the next year or two we should have a much better sense of


how many birds there are.”


More than a decade after adding the LEPC to the candidate list, the FWS is expected to issue the pro- posed listing rule in September 2012. It will explain the decision to list the species as either threatened or endangered based on fi ve listing factors from Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act. A listing as threat- ened means the bird is likely to become endangered in the future; endangered indicates that it could im- mediately go extinct. The fi ve factors are: A) Present or threatened destruction, modifi cation,


or curtailment of habitat or range; B) Overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientifi c, or educational purposes; C) Disease or predation; D) Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and E) Other natural or manmade factors. According to Collins, the main influence upon the LEPC has been Factor A—impacts on its habi- tat. Approximately 10,000-20,000 acres are required to sustain one lek, which can consist of up to 100 birds. Fragmentation of the bird’s habitat is believed to be one of the primary contributors to the decline in population.


“The number of prairie-chickens has likely de- clined because the amount of habitat suitable for their occupation has declined,” Collins said. “We’ve seen an 85 to 90 percent reduction in the range his- torically occupied, pre-European settlement.” There are a variety of causes for the fragmenta- tion of LEPC habitat, Doug Schoeling, upland game biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC), said. They include encroach- ment of eastern red cedar trees into the prairie land; suppression of wildfires that help maintain the grassland; oil, gas and wind energy development in LEPC-inhabited areas; conversion of native grassland to cropland; and overgrazing of livestock.


Photos courtesy of Sue Selman


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