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Prairie chicken numbers tumble

9/27/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Drought has taken a huge toll on the lesser prairie chicken -- in Kansas as well as the four other states where it can be found.

The declines don't come as a surprise to Jim Pittman, the small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the state's key representative on a science panel developing a five-state conservation plan designed to keep the bird off the federal endangered species list.

The results of the second helicopter-assisted survey were released Wednesday after they'd been put in limbo due to the threat of Texas pulling out of the five-state consortium.

There, Gov. Rick Perry had suggested the state might not attend a key meeting among the states to put the final touches on a plan that sets a target for the number of lesser prairie chickens to keep on the horizon.

"The governor's office said it would not support our plan," Pitman said.

That prompted officials from the four other states -- including Pittman -- to rush to Austin to get them back on board.

That's taken place and the plan has since been forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its review.

In its wake, the population estimate, the second of its kind in as many years, was released.

The report shows a nearly 50 percent decline -- bigger depending on the estimates used -- in the number of birds found.

"It shows we are down to about 17,000 birds rangewide," Pittman said Thursday. "It was a big decline, but not totally unexpected."

That's because the continuing drought has reduced cover for the birds to hide in, making them more prone to predation and simply hampering reproduction.

Last year's estimate put the total at 34,440 birds.

Already, Pittman's hoping late summer rains will provide a boost in habitat growth next spring, letting the prairie chicken's rebound.

The survey was made this spring, Pittman said, so it only counted the breeding population, and it broke the numbers down by region rather than state.

Three of the regions are in Kansas, which has a bigger share of the birds than the other state's combined.

It's been suggested that Gove County, for example, has more lesser prairie chickens that the other four states combined. Those state's are Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Because the count isn't exact, there's the possibility the decline was even greater than 50 percent.

Last year, officials were suggesting as many as 52,000 birds were in the five-state region. This year, that number's just shy of 21,000. That's a 60 percent decline.

But the drought has affected more than just the lesser prairie chicken.

It's a similar situation with the hunter harvest for pheasants, which went from a high just three years ago to the second lowest number a year ago.

"This year might prove to be worse," he said.

The state's pheasant forecast is about to be released, and Pittman said there's little positive that can be said.

That's the situation facing chickens.

"A lot of people see this number and think the sky is falling," Pittman said. "I don't think so."

He's confident the birds can rebound, but it needs better weather conditions.

The important thing, Pittman said, is there's no indication there's been any big losses is available habitat.

Pittman's now waiting to see what the federal wildlife agency does on the five-state conservation plan.

He said FWS Director Dan Ashe, in receiving the plan, said the agency likely would decide within 10 days if it's going to support it or not.