Sporting bright-orange inflatable air sacs, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken has long been a feature of the Texas and Louisiana landscapes. Their numbers were once so plentiful that cowboys relied upon them for fresh meat while herding cattle far from the ranch.
With the introduction of agriculture, woody species invasion, and human settlement, though, habitat loss caused this notable member of the grouse family to decline in the early 1900s, and eventually verge on extinction in Texas. Louisiana saw the species’s total demise.
This year, thanks to decades of concerted conservation efforts, Attwater’s prairie-chickens are rebounding. A recent survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy in Texas heralded the good news.
Protections for the species began as early as 1937 with the closure of hunting season and other efforts, to allow their numbers to recover. In 1967, the species was among the very first placed on the U.S. endangered species list—becoming part of the “class of ’67.”
But this once-abundant bird failed to recover the way conservationists hoped. The reason for this, they learned, owed to an invasive insect called the red fire ant, introduced from South America—which first appeared in the bird’s habitat in the 1970s. These fire ants reduced native insects that newly-hatched Attwater’s prairie-chicken chicks relied upon to survive.
A breakthrough was made when conservationists began to control these ants—whose aggressive traits always led them to the poison bait first—in areas where the prairie-chickens were being conserved. Their numbers soon showed promise of recovery. Active breeding programs introduced in the 1990s, on Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, and on private lands, played a key role.
Recovery efforts were frustrated, though, by catastrophic weather events, such as the historic drought of 2011, and the rains of Hurricane Harvey in 2017—which sent Attwater’s prairie-chicken populations to the brink of extinction.
In the spring of 2018, just 13 males were counted.
Since then, however, the prairie-chicken has made a remarkable comeback, far exceeding pre-Harvey levels and growing to their greatest numbers since 1993—thanks both to concerted conservation efforts and the resiliency of the Attwater’s prairie-chicken, itself.
A recent population survey of the species conducted in April counted 89 of the birds and estimated their current number to be 178.
This promising news affirms that conservationists’ captive breeding programs are on the right track; and that, given half a chance, the brightly adorned Texas native might thrive again someday.