This month wildlife experts are starting the third annual helicopter survey to assess lesser prairie chicken populations across the bird’s range in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado.
The historic first effort to conduct a large-scale, helicopter based survey to locate lesser prairie chicken breeding areas across the High Plains region in all five states occurred March-May 2012 and encompassed more than 300,000 square miles. Several previously unknown areas were detected, despite severe drought across the region. A new area was also detected in Kansas beyond what was thought to be the northern extent of the bird’s historic range.
Last year’s 2013 range-wide survey revealed population estimates of 17,616 down from the 34,440 estimated in 2012. The population decrease was predicted by biologists because of the persistent drought that has plagued the region in recent years. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies are now in the process of taking volunteer enrolments for a voluntary conservation agreement. The range wide plan includes management goals and voluntary conservation programs and practices to be applied throughout the lesser prairie chicken’s range. The final plan was endorsed in October by the US Fish and Wildlife Service which has proposed listing the lesser prairie chicken as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. They are expected to make that announcement on March 31, 2014.
Aerial surveys will continue through mid-May, extending from the southern plains of the Texas Panhandle and southeast New Mexico up through the Oklahoma panhandle to western Kansas and southeastern Colorado. Surveys will be flown at 35-40 mph about 80 feet above ground. Pilots involved have extensive experience conducting aerial surveys.