In April, biologists from the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge — a 10,000-acre tract of tallgrass prairie an hour west of Houston, Texas — took to the pastures in search of prairie chickens. The spring breeding season was in full swing. Male Attwater prairie chickens gathered in makeshift arenas called leks, their inflatable air sacs lively on their chests and their booming call and stomping dance transferring across the undergrowth to watching females.
As the team counted birds, their amazement and delight grew. By the end of the official 2021 census, they had seen a total of 89 males at the refuge and private property where the species has been reintroduced, suggesting a wild population of at least 178 birds. The count was an improvement of 18 men over the 71 counted the year before.
“2020 was probably one of our best breeding seasons ever,” said John Magera, refuge manager at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge who participated in the census. “It may be the best since we started keeping records before the species became endangered. We had 11 successful litters.”
These numbers may not sound impressive, but a year after the catastrophic flooding unleashed by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, officials counted just 13 males left in the wild, a devastating blow to one of America’s most critically endangered birds. Back then, the news raised serious concerns that the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken was caught in the undercurrent of extinction, with no easy escape. Thanks to the efforts of refuge biologists and zoologists at captive breeding programs in Houston and Glen Rose, the 2021 census is the highest number of wild birds recorded in 28 years. After a brush of disaster, the prairie chicken population seems to be weakly back on track.
More than a century ago, as many as a million Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens – a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken – roamed the coastal prairies of Louisiana and Texas. But agriculture and development chewed up the high-grass meadows, and the forest bush took over much of the rest. By the early 1900s, prairie chickens were gone from Louisiana. In 1937, as Texas bird numbers plummeted, officials of what later became the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began looking at conservation methods. The species was federally listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1967, and institutions like the Houston Zoo began a captive breeding program in the 1990s, with the goal of eventually returning the birds to the wild. However, as of 2011, releases were continually thwarted by flooding and inclement weather, the worst of which came with Hurricane Harvey.
It was a crisis situation, says Magera, but the shelter did not panic. “We had spent 25 years working with private landowners, developing captive breeding and recent discoveries for landscape treatments. We knew that the birds could breed independently and hatch young. We just needed a few years of normality to show that.” From 2018 to 2020, the program held up: The weather remained relatively mild during the breeding seasons, Magera says, and the population recovered.
In addition to the good weather, another reason for that success was due to the team’s work to eradicate fire ants, an invasive species that suppressed the native insects that prairie chickens depend on. Years of fire ant treatments led to a 20-30 percent increase in native insect and ant populations, in part because fire ants were so aggressive that they were always first to the deadly bait. “We’ve gradually expanded that program to where we’ll cover 5,000-6,000 acres of prairie per year,” Magera says, “so we can provide as much natural habitat as possible.”
But eradicating fire ants was only one piece of the puzzle. “To say that the fire ants were the silver bullet would not do justice to the dozens of people who have spent their lives looking for ways to conserve this species,” said Magera. And so a lot of time and effort has gone into developing precise methods for keeping wild nests safe (anti-predator fences do the job well), breeding healthy genetics in breeding pairs in complexes at NASA and Fossil Rim, and in establishing controlled burning and grazing regimes at the shelter to more closely mimic the conditions prairie chickens and other high-grass natives once enjoyed.
This year’s censuses also suggest that the management tools used at the refuge and on private land are effective, says Kirk Feuerbacher, coastal prairie project director at the Texas Nature Conservancy. “Being able to restore a population of grouse species sets a precedent and outlines avenues of success and failure for recovery efforts that can then be extrapolated to other threatened grouse species.”
The most important thing now, says Magera, is that people understand that progress is possible. “We’re not doing the job well enough to promote our success stories,” he says. “I think the public is a bit exhausted by crisis situations trying to turn their heads. I think people are more likely to come on board with a successful program these days.”