The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 26, 2011

Lesser bird, greater controversy

Chicken’s causing a flap in energy, wildlife circles

By Kasey Fowler, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

— While conservationists determine if an at-risk lesser chicken needs greater protection, one local man says saving the chicken could be bad for business.

The lesser prairie chicken — a grassland, nesting bird present in regions of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas — has been identified by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department as a species of greatest conservation need in Oklahoma.

“They have been in a state of decline for quite a period time,” said Tom Lucas, coordinator of the High Plains Resource Conservation and Development area. “The chicken has been classified as an 8, which meant it was at risk. In 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Department upgraded it from an 8 to a 2. That was a significant change in risk. This January, they began the process to see if the prairie chicken needed to been listed a threatened or endangered species. That is an ongoing process.”

It is a process that worries Joey Meibergen, with W.B. Johnston Grain Co.

“It could be devastating to northwest Oklahoma,” Meibergen said.

“They had a series of meetings to study the lesser prairie chicken,” he said. “Their habitat doesn’t like large structures like wind towers, wind mills, fence posts. If it is put on the endangered lists, the wildlife department can impose huge restrictions on landowners. It will be the end of wind energy.”

The lesser prairie chicken is known for its air sacks on its neck, which it puffs out during unique courtship rituals.

The males perform mating dances atop slightly raised ground with short vegetation, inflating the air sacks on their necks until they resemble two oranges. They then expel the air with a booming sound that can be heard more than a mile away to attract hens. As highly social animal, the lesser prairie chicken is most easily observed in spring when males gather to display for females.

The sand shinnery and sand sagebrush native rangelands of northwest Oklahoma are crucial for survival of the bird, Lucas said.

“Habitat is one of the factors in the decline, maybe the major factor in decline,” he said.

Lucas really is pointing to change in habitat when he speaks of the species’ decline. Specifically, fences, power lines, fuel exploration, road construction, cropland conversion, tree encroachment, herbicide usage and, most recently, wind energy activity, all have contributed to changes in the habitat.

Sutton Avian Research Center, in Bartlesville, found more than 40 percent of deaths of lesser prairie chickens are due to collisions with fences. The center works with cooperative land owners in moving fences no longer needed in the birds’ habitat.

With the upswing in wind energy exploration, Lucas said, studies are being conducted to see if practices in that area are affecting the birds.

“It is really too early to tell,” he said.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation released a tool designed to protect and conserve imperiled lesser prairie chickens affected by land development in western Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Lesser Prairie Chicken Spatial Planning Tool is a habitat-based model that quantifies the value of every acre within the bird’s range. It is designed to help developers and planners search for sites where development would least impact the lesser prairie chickens.

The tool also can be used in assessing the cost of development within the lesser prairie chicken’s range, as well as to prioritize areas and costs for prairie chicken habitat restoration and recovery efforts. Department officials hopes developers use the tool to determine a voluntary contribution to offset impacts of development.

However, if U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department’s findings land the species on the threatened or endangered lists, restrictions could require land owners and energy companies to take mandatory steps to help the lesser prairie chicken.

“They want you to take down fence that aren’t containing livestock,” Meibergen said. “Existing oil and gas structures would have to modified to comply with the habitat. I’m not sure that it wouldn’t impose future restrictions on drilling. It could be bad. If it happens it will affect Enid and the economy.”

Meibergen said he would like to see landowners taking steps on their own to help preserve the lesser prairie chicken habitats.

“There are really easy things to do to help the habitat. Burning fields would help the habitat. It kills brush, weeds and non-native trees. People are afraid to burn because of the liability,” he said.

“We need to keep our eye on it. We need to encourage (landowners) to try to restore some of the habitat before we invite Uncle Sam to do it through more regulation crammed down our throats. I’m not saying it is not important to not preserve the habitat of the prairie chicken, but it is important for us to do it ourselves.”

The festival of the bird

Leks, Treks and More: The Woodward Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival will be April 15-21. The festival will offer participants a chance to see the lesser prairie chickens from vans and blinds and to help protect the species by marking fences; workshops; and speakers.

For information, go to okaudubon .org.