Monday, October 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Species: Lesser Prairie Chicken and Sand Dune Lizard

Lesser Prairie Chicken displays at a lek. Photo by David Powell.

“Everyone loves to eat chicken!”, boomed Willard Heck, former Peregrine Fund biologist, as he began his talk about New Mexico’s highest priority, not-yet-federally-listed species, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). Each year, in April, the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival is held in Milnesand, NM, a town that appears to the outside to consist of a fire station and community center, one home, and a store that is only open occasionally. However, the community that surrounds the landmark buildings at the crossroads of NM 206 and NM 262, thirty miles due south of Portales, consists of many square miles of family ranches, many of which band together to pull off one of the most remarkable festivals I’ve attended.

It was my privilege to attend the April 2010 event with my friend, Charles Cummings. And, what a show it was! We reserved a viewing blind at one of the leks where we had an unobstructed view of the gobbling, booming males. Arriving in the pre-dawn blackness, we found our blind, covered up with blankets, gloves, and hats, and settled in for the show. We heard them long before we could see anything, ghostly booms and repeated stamping. It sounded as if they were within a few feet of us as we willed our vision to see into the night. As dawn enlightened the flattened vegetation of the lek, we began to see chicken-like shapes strutting and posturing, one of which was, indeed, right in front of us. Our four hours of observation flew by in the blink of an eye, entranced as we were by the dancing display. I’ve never seen anything like that before!

Sunrise on the eastern plains in New Mexico. Photo by author.

We soon found ourselves warming up with hot coffee and a sizeable breakfast prepared by the friendly folks that help make this festival happen. One wall of the room held numerous sign-up sheets for different activities offered throughout both days, ranging from birding and other wildlife outings to lectures about the unique sand dune/shinnery oak habitat, with a healthy dose of information about the other species of conservation concern in the area, the Sand Dune Lizard.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Biology

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC), a medium-sized member of the grouse family (insert map here), has the smallest population size and the most restricted range of all North American prairie grouse species. In New Mexico, it is found in “sand shinnery” vegetation communities that consist of dwarf shinnery oak and grasses in the far eastern reaches of the state. Recurrent droughts, combined with excessive grazing of rangelands, and conversion of rangelands to agricultural use have reduced the population of LPC by 97% in the last 100 years.

LPC have a lek mating system where males congregate daily and strut their stuff by erecting the feathers atop their heads and positioning themselves as if they are nearly bending over while spreading their primary feathers, extending their head and neck forward to expose a bright orange air sac and producing a piercing booming sound. As if that weren’t enough to advertise their prowess and fitness to the females, they top it off by stamping their feet on the ground. Leks have sparse vegetation and typically are located at a higher point in a somewhat flat landscape; birds are present on the lek from late March through May.

Humans used to hunt LPC for meat and raptors find them tasty, but the biggest predation threat is to hens incubating clutches. Terrestrial predators include raccoon, skunk, and coyote. Decrease of high quality nesting cover due to drought or overgrazing has been shown to negatively impact nesting success.

Grant Beauprez, prairie chicken biologist, for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish holds a Lesser Prairie Chicken as part of his reasearch.

According to Grant Beauprez, Lesser Prairie-Chicken Biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the New Mexico population of LPC hit a population high of over 9400 birds in 2008. Because not all areas of the species’ range were surveyed, this estimate represents the minimum population size. Surveys are conducted in March and April each year, documenting the number of birds that survived through the winter, thus a 2008 survey would be affected by the reproductive success in 2007. In May 2008, a major hailstorm that produced golf ball size hail struck New Mexico’s core nesting area. Many hens died in the icy deluge and recruitment was poor that year. Surveys in 2009 documented only 5,000 birds and in 2010, the population dropped to 3,000. Beauprez reports that the summer of 2010 has been really wet, and the grass looks better than he’s ever seen. There are anecdotal reports of people seeing more birds this summer, lending hope for good reproduction and higher numbers on the 2011 surveys.

“We’ll just have to wait for spring to see! The only time I get to see and hear these birds is at sunrise in the spring. It is what keeps me motivated throughout the year -- actually seeing and hearing them; they are really fun birds. So unique!” Beauprez’s enthusiasm was evident and infectious as he talked about the species that is his life’s work.

Sand Dune Lizard. Photo by Charlie Painter, state herpetologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Sand Dune Lizard Biology

Also found in the same geographic area, but restricted to sand dune formations inhabited by shinnery oak in Lea, Eddy, and south Chaves counties, is the small, terrestrial sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus). Charlie Painter, State Herpetologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, has spent a large portion of his career working to understand this lizard, part of our native biodiversity which needs to be preserved.

Painter reports, “This is the only place on the planet where the Sand Dune Lizard occurs. It is a very habitat specific and restricted lizard, found only in sandy blowouts. It is a generalized insectivore that eats a wide variety of arthropod prey. A fairly shy lizard, it is quick to retreat when encountered and will bury itself under leaf litter. It’s a really beautiful lizard! Females take on a really nice burnt orange and yellow color in the breeding season and males have bright turquoise blue belly patches. “

Painter continues, “The Sand Dune Lizard faces a variety of threats, primarily habitat destruction and fragmentation, anything that removes sand dune habitat: well pads, roads, and power lines. Additionally, the lizard is very susceptible to pit fall trapping which also makes them highly vulnerable to trenches that have been left open. Previous studies have shown that the widespread use of the herbicide, Tebuthiron, used to control shinnery oak and mesquite to increase forage for cattle also has impacted suitable habitat.”

Conservation of Two Diverse Species

Both animals are Federal Candidate species, listed as warranted, but precluded as endangered or threatened. Concerned over the status of the two species, state and federal agencies proposed a “Working Group” of public and private stakeholders to develop a collaborative conservation strategy. In 2003, led by a professional facilitation team, the group began meeting. The goal, adopted by the group was:

To create a conservation strategy for the management of shinnery oak and sage grassland communities in southeastern and east-central New Mexico, recommending a range of specific actions to enhance and secure populations of Lesser Prairie-Chickens and Sand Dune Lizards, so that federal or state listing of these species is not needed, while protecting other uses of the land.

Thus began two years of intensive work among government agencies, ranchers, oil and gas producers, conservation organizations and other interested parties culminating in the 2005 publication, “Collaborative Conservation Strategies for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sand Dune Lizard in New Mexico: Findings and Recommendations of the New Mexico LPC/SDL Working Group.”

The Nature Conservancy, known for direct acquisition of lands in need of protection, and a member of the working group, purchased the 18,500 acre Creamer Ranch in 2005 that became the Milnesand Prairie Preserve. In 2009, they acquired the 9,200 acre Johnson Ranch, expanding the preserve to 28,000 acres of unfragmented grasslands with shinnery oak.

The Festival

All conservation efforts, regardless of the species or habitats, must include education and outreach, and the LPC/SDL Working Group has come up with a unique way to promote the animals they work to protect. Each year, beginning in 2002, the tiny town has hosted the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival thanks to the collaborative efforts of the community of Milnesand, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the Nature Conservancy of New Mexico, and the Grasslands Charitable Foundation.

The community has embraced the event and rallied around the cause. People come from all over the world to look at the chickens. Local landowners realize that it is to their benefit to work together to protect the birds. Lesser Prairie Chickens are good indicators of the health of the sand dune/shinnery oak ecosystem. Beauprez’s final comment about the conservation efforts: “If you have lots of chickens you have lots of grass for cattle.”

The 10th Annual High Plains

Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival

April 15-17, 2011

Or send an e-mail to Tish MacDaniel at

Folks from around the country flock to this unique event where you can:

Observe and photograph breeding adults at leks

Bird with some of the best birders in New Mexico

Talk with ranchers and biologists working to conserve LPC

Learn about the Southern Great Plains ecosystem

Enjoy good food and Western Hospitality

Watch for the website to post the 2011 festival activities and be sure to register early. The festival is limited to the first 100 registrants and the 2010 event was sold out within one week. Registration is limited because of the sensitivity of the LPC during the breeding season and because festival volunteers prepare and serve all meals during the festival.

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