Once widespread throughout the Great Plains the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Tympanuches pallidicinctus, are now limited to a restricted range through parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. These smaller relatives of the Greater Prairie-Chicken are dependent on large areas of native prairie, particularly shortgrass prairie and sand sagebrush grasslands. However these birds have experienced a 92% reduction in range since the 1800s with similar decreases in the number of birds.

Habitat loss has been the largest driver of this decline. With the 92% reduction in range this seems like a natural conclusion. However, the way in which habitat is being lost may not seem as obvious. If one were to drive through the native range of these birds they might ask how is this habitat lost? There is very little construction through these areas. The habitat has actually been degraded by the conversion of prairie to agricultural land and through the construction of tall structures such as power lines and wind turbines.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken range map

Lesser Prairie-Chicken range map

Lesser Prairie-Chickens will not venture near tall structures as these are excellent perching places for hawks and other flying predators. Unfortunately for these birds, which are labeled as vulnerable by the IUCN, the best places for wind energy happen to be right in the middle of their remaining habitat. So as we attempt to create more green energy by harnessing wind we are inadvertently putting more pressure on a species that has already been pushed to the brink.

Fragmentation of land through fence construction has also been a threat to these low flying birds. When they are flushed and try to evade danger they often smash into these fences and die.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

There is hope though. Several organizations are working to protect this species. NRCS, Natural Resources Conservation Service, has developed a program to promote conservation on private lands. This plan includes supporting better grading practices that maintain proper nesting cover for these birds, protecting and restoring large tracts of native prairie and  sagebrush grasslands, and increase connectivity of prairie-chicken habitat. So far 600 farmers and ranchers have enrolled in this program conserving around 1 million acres of habitat.

The Wildlife Society has also been involved in the conservation of prairie-chickens. Particularly several student chapters have organized work days to go out into prairie-chicken habitat and place reflectors on fences, with land-owner permission of course, to prevent these birds from striking fences by helping them see the wires from farther away.

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