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Survey finds more prairie chickens

7/11/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The results are in for the latest aerial survey of lesser prairie chickens, and it's suggesting a 20 percent increase in the bird's population.

But the numbers aren't easily reconciled.

Estimated numbers from this spring's survey -- the third of its kind in the wake of an announcement that the bird might be listed as a threatened species -- suggest the numbers stand at 22,415 compared to 18,747 in 2013 -- nearly half the 34,440 estimated in 2012.

But questions about the survey abound, including one surrounding an apparent boost in 2013 numbers as a result of this spring's survey.

While the changes aren't dramatic, they do change the decline from 2012 to 2013, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on when it made its decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened.

The change -- if it sticks -- also makes the increase since last year markedly smaller.

Lesser prairie chicken populations didn't uniformly increase, instead plummeting in the traditional lesser prairie chicken sagebrush region.

"The sand sagebrush region in southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and the northwestern Oklahoma panhandle, where persistent drought continues to take a toll, showed a significant population decline," said Bill Van Pelt, the grassland coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Van Pelt didn't detail the extent of the losses, and the complete survey hasn't been released yet.

WAFWA is the lead agency in a five-state conservation plan endorsed by the federal wildlife agency. In exchange for enrolling and paying a fee, WAFWA -- and by extension, the FWS -- shields oil and gas producers and other energy companies from liability if they happen to kill a lesser prairie chicken.

Interest income from the money paid in to the program is used to pay landowners to implement conservation programs to mitigate the loss.

Already, more than 160 companies have enrolled nearly 9 million acres, paying in almost $43 million for habitat conservation.

The slight increase in prairie chicken numbers also provided the opportunity for WAFWA to hawk its plan.

"Just as with last year's population decrease, we shouldn't read too much into short-term fluctuations over one or two years," Van Pelt said. "What these numbers show is the importance of maintaining good prairie habitat. Increased rainfall led to improved habitat in part of the lesser prairie-chicken's range, allowing populations to respond to better conditions. This population response underscores the importance of implementing the lesser prairie chicken range-wide conservation plan, a blueprint to work with private landowners and industry to protect and restore habitat and recover the species."

While the sagebrush region declined, lesser prairie chicken numbers increased elsewhere.

"The mixed grass prairie region showed the biggest gain, a region that includes the northeastern Texas Panhandle, northwestern Oklahoma and south-central Kansas, an area where more rain produced better prairie habitat," WAFWA said.

Again, it's unclear how much the numbers increased.

It's also unclear, however, if the increase can be considered statistically significant, as the 20-percent threshold is the lower limit for assuming an increase.

The helicopter surveys are not actual counts but rather statistical samplings obtained by flying helicopters along a series of transects.