Initiative under way to preserve prairie chickens

Federal program seeks to enhance the number of habitable acres for New Mexico’s lesser prairie chicken. (New Mexico Game & Fish)

By Ryn Gargulinski: CNJ staff writer

Imagine southeastern New Mexico as it once was — lacking in cars, bustling with grasslands, and hopping with prairie chickens.

Although the small fowl still pepper the state in isolated regions — enough to hold an annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival in their core area of Milnesand — their population is nowhere near its original grandeur, according to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

The federal government is hoping to change all that. In fact, several federally funded programs have been in the works for a while.

For over the last five years, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has been instrumental for the prairie chicken, according to Tish McDaniel, a contract biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Contract Biologist and coordinator for the Nature Conservancy Short-Grass Prairie-Project.

Another “save the prairie chicken” effort comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With a history of several years in Roosevelt County, where the land is conducive to prairie chickens, NRCS has only within the last year turned its focus on Curry County, where the land was originally thought to be disagreeable to the chicken.

“The land owner is the prairie chicken’s best friend,” McDaniel said, applauding recent cooperation from ranchers, the key to a successful result.

Bill Dunn, supervising biologist for Predator and Game Management with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, agreed. “People are paying more attention and we are really starting to gain momentum,” he said.

Rancher John Clemens is one of those people. After attending “prairie chicken meetings” for more than five years, Clemens partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Program two years ago. In accordance with his 10-year contract, Clemens sets aside 206 acres to be used exclusively for prairie chickens. This land, part of a 4,700-acre pasture 35 miles southwest of Portales, is fenced off and only used for grazing cattle one or two months per year, when it doesn’t interfere with mating or nesting, Clemens said.

In return, the Department of Game and Fish sprayed 600 acres of Clemens’ land to rid of invasive Chollo cactus.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Clemens said of the agreement, “with everyone trying to come to a meeting of the minds. It’s better than being at loggerheads with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”

Although Clemens preferred not to cite a specific example, he said past state conservation efforts may have included prohibiting anyone from using large expanses of land.

“The idea is to encourage conservation in concert with ranchers,” Dunn said, noting that the Clemens ranch is the program’s first major habitat project.

The Creamer ranch in Milnesand is another location in which the Fish and Wildlife Department plays a role. The Creamers, however, sold their land to the privately owned, not-for-profit Nature Conservancy. The Creamers lease the land from the Conservancy while they continue to live on and manage the area. The state works with the Creamers and the Conservancy for the common cause.

“Ours is just one of many programs available to land owners, many through the federal government,” Dunn said. “At the prairie chicken festival I was going to say we are winning the fight,” he added, “but there is no fight. Everyone is working together to restore and conserve our natural habitats.”

The government’s goal is to restore tens of thousands of acres to benefit the prairie chicken. The Partners program reports this once obsequious bird is absent from nearly 56 percent of its historical range in the state, a range that once reached from the Colorado to Texas borders.

McDaniel broadens the picture to say that prairie chickens are missing from 90 percent of their natural habitat across five states — eastern New Mexico, western Texas, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas and western Oklahoma.

“There were so many prairie chickens they used to darken the sky,” McDaniel said.