Among America’s iconic native birds, the little prairie chicken can be particularly hard to spot – hiding behind shrubbery, rarely emerging except before sunrise in the spring for flamboyant mating dances.
But now he could become Colorado’s first climate casualty.
A painstaking $428,000 state effort to stave off extinction by moving 205 of these chickens from Kansas to the plains of southeastern Colorado is failing, state records show. Colorado parks and wildlife biologists, as well as bird experts, blame the hotter, drier conditions. Federal authorities have cited climate change as a factor in their decline. CPW data shows the number of chickens moved has fallen from 139 in 2020 to less than 90.
Even now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has granted Endangered Species Act protection — the ecological equivalent of emergency room life support — bird experts say the future of the little prairie chicken and its cousins - the sage grouse, Gunnison sage grouse, and greater prairie chicken – seem increasingly precarious.
“We consider the little prairie chicken to be one of the first on the list of many climate casualties,” said Jon Hayes, the Audubon Society’s executive director for the Southwest United States.
Audubon Society scientists have estimated that if global warming continues unabated, more than 60% of bird species in North America will disappear by the end of the 21st century.
The prairie chicken and other cousins of the Colorado grouse “are on the front lines of the battle,” said Hayes, advocating large-scale land preservation that could help the birds withstand droughts like last option to possibly reverse the declines.
Human industrial activities have long endangered grassland birds, including industrial agriculture after the Dust Bowl, oil and gas development, and renewable wind and solar power installations.
“But, now what we’re seeing is absolutely the impact of climate,” Hayes said.
Rising temperatures have led to intensified droughts with rainfall concentrated in fewer storms, often falling all at once. This pattern reduces rainwater infiltration into groundwater, which often means less water available when plants need water the most. Then, the reduced vegetation reduces insect populations – the food that young birds need.
On Nov. 17, federal wildlife officials designated the country’s surviving prairie chickens officially “endangered” in Texas and New Mexico and “threatened” in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas — the five states where these chickens live. exist. For more than two decades, wildlife advocates have warned of impending extinction.
Little prairie chickens once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Colorado and the other four states. Federal data shows an overall decline from 45,000 in 2014 to less than 27,000.
Federal authorities have also listed the Gunnison sage-grouse in southwestern Colorado as threatened. And in 2010, federal biologists determined that the greater sage-grouse, a species that numbers in the millions on 165 million acres in Colorado and 10 other states, needed protection, but decided in 2015 to lean on. on voluntary efforts by states to prevent extinction. The greater prairie chicken, found in northeastern Colorado (Yuma, Washington, and Phillips counties), also faces dry conditions, but so far has survived.
Colorado wildlife officials spent $428,000 between 2017 and 2021 on an unprecedented rescue campaign to capture and relocate Kansas chickens — an effort to stave off federal intervention. Of those funds, $300,000 came from a federal grant to the state, according to CPW records. The $428,000 figure does not include additional government funds used to pay employees, vehicle mileage, equipment and aircraft tracking flights.
A federal endangered species list requires tighter restrictions, potentially complicating energy pipelines, roads and other developments that could harm chickens and the native grassland habitat needed for the species’ recovery.
A CPW team working in freezing pre-dawn light with counterparts in Kansas used remote-controlled nets to capture 205 small prairie chickens (103 males and 102 females). They transported them to Colorado and released them, attempting to re-establish a self-sustaining population on the federally managed 443,784-acre Comanche National Grasslands near La Junta in southeastern Colorado.
Why these chickens aren’t settling down remains “a good question,” said Nancy Brewer, a U.S. Department of Agriculture pasture ecologist who helps manage grasslands.
“We think we’ve created a good habitat for them that they like – grasslands of sand sagebrush. It’s the kind of fodder they like where they lived. But, for some reason – who knows why? — they don’t settle and increase their population,” Brewer said.
“Over the past two years, the drought has impacted the type of cover and forage they need,” she said. Predators include coyotes and skunks.
CPW officials declined to discuss their project and plans for the future. “CPW does not recognize any species native to Colorado as ‘climate casualties,'” agency spokesperson Travis Duncan said in an email response to questions from the Denver Post.
However, CPW bird conservation specialist Liza Rossi, in an email response to questions, said state biologists agree with federal land managers that the Comanche National Grasslands provide largely uninterrupted sand sagebrush habitat.
“We believed the habitat was capable of supporting the prairie chicken cub, so we invested in the translocation effort and released the prairie chicken cubs to the national grasslands,” Rossi wrote. “It is disheartening to see that the numbers have gone down after the translocation with the last two years of drought. We remain hopeful that some of the leks (breeding grounds) established during translocation will persist in the future.
CPW officials anticipate that federal protection of the prairie chicken, which begins in January, will improve conservation and “hope to reduce future fragmentation of prairie chicken habitats,” she said.
“Beginning in the summer of 2020 and continuing through the spring 2022 counts, southeast Colorado experienced a fairly severe drought. Lower prairie chicken numbers have been known to fluctuate with rainfall, largely because the birds nest on the ground and depend on adequate ground cover to conceal nests and successfully hatch chicks,” Rossi wrote. .
“Precipitation is also important in providing habitat for insects and broods. We believe the recent decline is largely related to drought and reduced vegetation cover. Research conducted as part of the translocation effort has indicated that the vegetation cover of many rangelands in the Comanche National Grasslands may not provide sufficient cover for nesting, especially during periods of drought.
Killing a small prairie chicken would mean a federal fine and an accidental “take” will require “mitigation” to help the species through approved measures to restore bird habitat.
Audubon Society scientists found that the impacts of global warming, including reduced vegetation in North America, would mean that 389 of the 604 species they studied, drawing on tens of millions of bird records, lack suitable habitat. The scientists concluded that these species would likely disappear before the end of the century if the Earth’s average temperature continued to warm by 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
“It’s dark. I’m not sure I’m ready to throw in the towel,” Hayes said.
Saving the grouse species “would take a massive investment and a lot of work. And, unfortunately, we are likely to see some disappearances – local extinctions,” he said. “Efforts to restock these birds are really difficult. The only solution will lie in an expansion of the existing habitat so that they can naturally fill again the places where they lived before.
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