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Can We Learn From the History of the Heath Hen?

By David S. Wilcove
Lesser-prairie chicken by Dave Krueper
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Lesser-Prairie chickens now occupy less than 15 percent on their historic range. Photo by Dave Krueper via Birdshare.

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In the movie Groundhog Day, the lead character, played by Bill Murray, is forced to relive the same day again and again until he finally learns how to be a more compassionate, caring person. I sometimes think we’re in the same situation with respect to bird conservation, although this time a better title for the movie would be Chicken Day. For more than a century, we have been trying to protect North America’s prairie-chickens, yet decade after decade their numbers have slid downward because we haven’t figured out how to get the job done.

Consider the Heath Hen, a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken that once ranged widely along the Atlantic Seaboard from Massachusetts to Virginia. In the colonial era, Heath Hens were so abundant that servants allegedly pleaded with their employers not to be fed them more than a few times a week. Yet by the mid-1800s, the Heath Hen had been reduced to a single population on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. By 1896, they numbered fewer than 100 individuals, and by 1908, they had dropped to 50. That year, a refuge for the Heath Hens was established, and their numbers began to climb, reaching 2,000 birds by 1915. Then, a succession of disasters took their toll. A fire in the summer of 1916 burned much of their habitat; this was followed by an unusually severe winter, accompanied by an invasion of Northern Goshawks, and the birds’ population dropped to fewer than 150. Then a disease, probably spread by domestic poultry, hit the survivors. By the late 1920s, only two Heath Hens remained, and the last bird was seen in 1932.

One can forgive the early conservationists for failing to save this iconic bird. With hindsight, we know they should have gotten on the case well before the Heath Hens dropped to such perilously low numbers. And it was too risky to have all the birds in one place; one or more backup populations should have been established elsewhere within the bird’s historic range.

In 1991, in response to my efforts to locate people who had seen extinct North American birds, I received a set of astonishing black-and-white photographs from the late Sally Spofford (who worked for many years at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Her husband Walter had visited Martha’s Vineyard during the twilight of the Heath Hen’s existence and photographed the surviving birds. His images depict a handful of displaying males, plus a lone individual or two, at a cold, barren New England farm. Staring at the photographs, one senses the futility of the situation: so few birds, so little habitat, so many problems.

heath Hen by chris buelow
A Heath Hen specimen from a collection that originated circa 1850 in central Massachusetts. Photo by chris buelow via Birdshare.

Ideally, the saga of the Heath Hen should have given us a better sense of how to save prairie-chickens elsewhere. But there’s precious little evidence of that, inasmuch as another subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken—the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—seems about to go the way of the Heath Hen. Once common in the coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana, the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken lost virtually all of its habitat to industrial and residential development, farming, and overgrazing by livestock. Although it has been known to be in trouble for decades and was among the first animals to be added to the official endangered species list, its populations have continued to decline, from roughly 8,700 individuals in 1937 to a mere 66 by the spring of 2013. Today’s miniscule “wild” population, confined to a few prairie fragments in Texas, depends upon annual releases of captivereared birds. There is simply no evidence of a self-sustaining, wild population of Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens.

Most scientists point to the lack of suitable habitat as the biggest obstacle to success. Prairie-chickens are notorious for requiring large expanses of intact grasslands to sustain healthy populations, but along the Texas coast the remaining grasslands are highly fragmented, overrun with invasive fire ants (which can be fatal to ground-nesting birds), and crisscrossed with fences, telephone poles, and other infrastructure that pose hazards to flying prairie-chickens and also attract raptors. Moreover, birds in these fragments are vulnerable to fires, storms, and other natural disturbances that can take down a small population of a rare species, as happened in the case of the Heath Hen.

To be fair, federal and state agencies, conservation organizations, and private landowners have been trying hard to save the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, which would surely have vanished long ago without their efforts. But I fear we may have reached a point of no return in terms of being able to place a self-sustaining population back into the wild, unless we can quickly restore large tracts of coastal grasslands. And that isn’t easy.

A third subspecies of Greater PrairieChicken now occurs in scattered populations from North Dakota east to Illinois. Although the total number of individuals was estimated to be 200,000 to 250,000 as recently as a decade ago, this subspecies, too, has been in a downward spiral for years, having already disappeared from multiple states and provinces.

In the arid grasslands of the western Great Plains lives the Greater PrairieChicken’s closest relative—the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently proposed adding to the endangered species list. As amply demonstrated with the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, the mere act of adding a species to the endangered list does not guarantee its recovery. But in the case of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, the USFWS may have done so while there’s still enough habitat and birds to be successful.

Lesser Prairie-Chickens require short- and mixed-grass prairies with shrubby patches of sagebrush or shinnery oak. Because the prairie-chickens use different habitats within the grasslands for foraging, nesting, and displaying, a certain degree of heterogeneity within the grasslands is important to them. Starting in the early 20th century, large expanses of the arid grasslands were converted to croplands that are simply unfit for the birds. Today, ranchers own most of what is left of these grasslands. Livestock grazing can be compatible with prairie-chicken conservation— the prairie-chickens and other wildlife are far better off with ranching than farming—but there are still some issues to work out. Fences pose a hazard to the birds, and excessive grazing can render the grasslands unsuitable for them. More ominously, the recent energy boom across the Great Plains has led to a profusion of access roads, drill pads, pipelines, waste pits, and other infrastructure across the range of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, all of which fragments and degrades their habitat. How the necessary infrastructure for energy production can be put in place without ruining the grasslands for prairie-chickens is undoubtedly one of the biggest scientific and political challenges the USFWS will face when it finally places the Lesser Prairie-Chicken on the endangered list.

The USFWS estimates that Lesser Prairie-Chickens now occupy less than 15 percent of their historic range. But that still translates into tens of thousands of birds across roughly 25,000 square miles of habitat, most of which is privately owned. That’s probably enough birds and land to give the species a fighting chance, but to save the species, those landowners will need to become willing participants in conservation programs. Bringing them on board will require a delicate balance of encouragement, incentives, and enforcement from state and federal authorities.

Can it be done? Time will tell. But I got a hint of what might be possible last April, when I signed up with Arena Dust Tours to see displaying Lesser PrairieChickens in eastern Colorado. Fred and Norma Dorenkamp, the owners of Arena Dust Tours, have a long-standing friendship with local ranchers, enabling them to bring visitors onto private lands to see the prairie-chickens. A portion of the revenues from the tours is returned to the ranchers, who then have a financial incentive to safeguard the birds.

At four o’clock on a cold, dark morning, an old yellow school bus driven by Frank pulled up in front of the motel where I was staying in Holly, Colorado. I hopped in, joining a half-dozen other sleepy bird watchers for an hour-long ride to the ranch. Once there, the bus left the road and rattled its way across the prairie for a few more miles before stopping. While we shivered in the dark and waited, a few meadowlarks began to sing—avian insomniacs, perhaps. Then we began to hear the prairie-chickens: cackles and squawks mixed in with a strange bubbling sound. When the sun peeked over the horizon, we finally saw the display ground, or lek, as it’s called. Male prairiechickens with inflated pink air sacs strutted on the nearly bare ground. From time to time, a female would walk among them, showing all the enthusiasm of a bored supermarket shopper deciding which brand of ketchup to buy. The presence of the females drove the males into a frenzy, causing them to squat down and stare at each other before suddenly leaping into the air to engage in brief and clumsy aerial battles. Then more squawking and dancing, interspersed with further battles. It was as remarkable a scene as any I’ve ever witnessed.

After a couple hours, the prairie-chickens grew quiet and eventually left the lek to forage in the surrounding grasslands. They would reassemble before dawn the next day to dance, squawk, fight, and mate, as they have been doing for thousands of years, symbols of an Old West that is disappearing before our eyes.

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