Monday, March 8, 2010

Exit Booming...

The performance begins at first light on a windswept expanse of northwest Oklahoma prairie. First one, then two, then a half-dozen birds glide into the small clearing, each staking out its own small piece of territory. Then - as if on cue - they begin a ritual as old as the prairie itself.
Dragging wings on either side of their bodies, male lesser prairie chickens inflate reddish-orange sacs on the sides of their necks, raise a pair of specialized feathers above their heads, stamp their feet and call, all in the hopes of attracting a female. The males maneuver for position, bobbing their heads at one another and fluttering briefly into the air before starting the routine all over again.
It’s called “booming” and on calm days in April and May it can be heard from as far away as a mile. It is this unique behavior that makes the prairie chicken one of the most iconic symbols of plains wildness.
But these are hard times for the lesser prairie chicken, and on this small patch of earth, known as a “lek”, this handful of birds is among the last vestiges of a species which once numbered in the millions. No females appear this day, and one by one the males give up and leave. All that's left in their passing are a few feathers caught in the buffalo grass and the fading echo of memory.

That's the lede to a story (the first of many) I wrote way back in 1998, and things have, if anything, gotten worse in the 12 years since I first had the privilege of watching the sun rise on a prairie chicken booming ground.

Few are familiar with the lesser prairie chicken, but it's probably the most interesting and ultimately tragic upland game conservation story no one has ever heard of. At one time the LPC was the most important and probably most numerous gamebird on the southern and central plains. It numbered in the millions and rivaled the bobwhite quail in both numbers, popularity and cultural tradition. Everyone on the southern plains hunted chickens.

I grew up always wanting to hunt lessers, but by the time I was old enough to actually attempt it, Oklahoma's season had been shut down because this formerly popular and populous prairie gamebird is literally on the way out, thanks to all the usual suspects of habitat loss, changing land-use practices land-use, etc.

The LPC will in all likelihood be listed under the ESA in the next several years and the remaining states that offer a season (Texas, NM and Kansas) will end those seasons, probably forever if the population slide can't be turned around. So a bird that once numbered in the millions and supported a generations-long hunting tradition has essentially disappeared in the span of a few decades.

I was in the process of writing a blog post about the lesser prairie chicken, and I still plan to but Tom Reed over at Mouthful of Feathers has a great piece on the sage grouse issue that I think is worth a read.

The recent decision (and resulting publicity) by USF&W to list the sage grouse as a "warranted but precluded" species is further evidence that our prairie gamebirds, specifically our grouse, are in serious trouble.

Most of the threats to the LPC and the sage grouse are one and the same: unfettered oil and gas development, a combination of the recent boom in wind energy development and the big national push toward more ethanol. Native grass is being turned over to ag production, primarily corn, with ethanol as the end-product. Like the sage grouse, it all goes back to energy production. Combine that with the almost-certain continued loss of enrolled CRP acres (again, due to putting those acres back into production) and it's a double-whammy for prairie gamebirds and even southern-nesting waterfowl.

But it's also an issue of non-awareness among hunters. The prairie chicken, like all prairie gamebirds save perhaps the pheasant, has been on a well-charted long, slow multi-decade decline. You coincide that with the fact there are simply fewer new or younger hunters out there now who hunt upland birds and you start chasing the demographic dragon. I've been to a number of regional stakeholder meetings about the lesser prairie chicken and by and large hunters aren't really represented at these meetings. It's amazing to me that we're on a precipice, the very edge of losing an iconic species and no one really knows about it.

To be perfectly honest (And yes, I admit, this a literary drive-by here...) I blame a lot of that on the rise and utter primacy of deer and turkey hunting as the dominant cultural meme for American hunters over the past 30 years or so. It's been extremely detrimental to other less popular game species in terms of public awareness, research dollars and press.

And while everyone goes batshit crazy over shooting what amounts to photogenic livestock, our prairie grouse, and with it an entire hunting tradition, slowly fades out of frame...


  1. Thanks for this post, Chad. Growing up here in New England, I didn't know LPCs existed until I was an adult. Even now, my knowledge is limited. Always good to learn more about an unfamiliar species and get a status update, even if it's not exactly encouraging.

  2. I grew up where there were still a few Atwater prairie chickens. I always wondered if those birds knew they were the last lek or two, while the millions of birds that used to be in the neighborhood them were gone.
    Just another example of how we are failing the next generation of sportsmen.

  3. Yep, Greg, as a viable species I think it's pretty much doomed.

  4. I don't know if deer and turkey as the dominant cultural meme is to blame or not. Prairie chickens and sage hens have long been a trek to pretty empty country. While I've never hunted either, desert quail experience tells me you could probably also put many miles under your boots before you found the birds. Deer and turkey are local and, for much of that time, increasing.

    Stories by John Barseness and Charley Waterman and a few others back in the 80's talked about how empty the plains were twenty to thirty years ago.

    A "sage birds forever" or "prairie grouse unlimited" type organization would no doubt do the birds some good, though, by adding some hunters voices.

  5. While I have never hunted LPC, even though they were legal while I lived in Kansas, the GPC was my favorite bird. The plight of these and other critters is painful to watch. You articulate well the issues and considerations, but I doubt that it would matter much whether you had a ten readers or ten million; the money is against the bird.