Aerial Surveys Document Stable Lesser Prairie-Chicken Population Trends

Posted by WAFWA on July 16, 2020
Biologists Note Annual Population Fluctuations, Emphasize Value of Improved Habitat

The latest lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey shows that bird population estimates remain stable from the previous survey and —more importantly—the estimated number of birds has increased since surveys began in 2012. The surveys document an estimated range-wide breeding population of 34,408 birds this year which biologists say is not significantly different from the 33,094 birds estimated in 2018.

Wildlife biologists note prairie chicken population regularly fluctuate up and down from year to year due to changes in habitat conditions, which are primarily influenced by rainfall patterns. Voluntary conservation efforts by landowners have also created additional habitat in recent years, which has benefited the long-term sustainability of the species. This spring’s estimated breeding population remains significantly larger than the 15,397 birds estimated in 2013 following two years of severe drought.

Lesser-prairie chickens can be found four ecoregions across five states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. “Just as with population estimate increases in 2018, we shouldn’t read too much into short-term fluctuations over one or two years,” said Bill Van Pelt, WAFWA grassland coordinator. “The monitoring technique used for this survey is designed to track trends, and both the three and five-year trends indicate a stable population. Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit a large geographic landscape with highly variable weather patterns, so we expect to see annual and regional population fluctuations. What these numbers show is the importance of maintaining good prairie habitat for long-term population stability. Populations have responded positively in recent years to increased and timely rainfall in the majority of the bird’s range. Specifically, the population has significantly increased over the last five years in the short-grass ecoregion. Voluntary conservation efforts like the range-wide plan help ensure suitable habitat is available so these population increases can occur when weather conditions are suitable.”

The aerial surveys were developed to estimate population trends for the entire lesser prairie-chicken population. Ecoregional estimates provide long-term trend data, but estimates have more uncertainty associated with them. The population estimates this year indicated a stable population across the range and apparent increases in the shortgrass prairie ecoregion of northwest Kansas and the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. Decreases were observed in the mixed grass prairie ecoregion of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas, and the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA and state wildlife agencies of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. It was developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry. The plan allows industry to continue operations while reducing and mitigating impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat. Industry contributions support conservation actions implemented by participating private landowners. To date, industry partners have committed over $60 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve over 130,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.

“While bird numbers are up only slightly over last year, it’s heartening to see the population has more than doubled since WAFWA and its partners launched the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan in 2014,” said J.D. Strong, chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “Habitat conservation and species recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. We appreciate the continued commitment of all of our industry partners and participating landowners in this unprecedented voluntary conservation effort to improve vital habitat and ultimately stabilize populations.” 

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan can be found HERE.

Contact: Bill Van Pelt, (602) 717-5066,