Attwater's Prairie Chicken | Credit: USFWS

​Attwater's Prairie Chicken

About the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

The Attwater’s prairie chicken is a grouse unique to the coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana. It is closely related to the Greater prairie chicken, which lives in the tallgrass prairies farther north. More than a century ago, an estimated one million Attwater’s prairie chickens inhabited their range. By 1937, approximately 8,700 birds remained, all in Texas. 

The precipitous decline in Attwater’s numbers were the result of habitat loss due to farming and the degradation of remaining habitat which was directly linked to the suppression of naturally-rejuvenating prairie fires. Attwater’s prairie chickens were listed as endangered in 1967, when only 1,000 birds remained. Today it is considered one of the most endangered birds in North America.

Why NFWF Intervened

Despite the creation of a refuge in the early 1970s, the Attwater’s population continued to decline.  Reproduction and survival rates were low, even on the refuge, because of the biological problems caused by low population size – including: (1) breakdown of the highly evolved social system, (2) loss of genetic diversity, and (3) disproportionate effects of severe weather, disease, and predation. 

In 1992, with only 456 birds remaining, a last-ditch attempt was made to save this unique sub-species through initiation of an aggressive captive-breeding program. Today, only about 110 of these endangered birds remain in the wild on just two remnant prairie fragments in eastern Texas and on experimental release sites on private ranches in the Refugio-Goliad region of south Texas. About 300 birds remain in captivity.

Our Goal

The goal of our Attwater’s prairie chicken initiative was to develop innovative technologies and support creative research to identify and implement solutions that would reverse the vexing population problems plaguing this federally-listed threatened bird. Our three primary conservation strategies included: 

  1. Building a new, dedicated captive breeding facility and upgrading current facilities;
  2. Researching behavioral, physiological, and nutritional challenges associated with captive propagation and release; and,
  3. Supporting habitat management that increased the quality of existing and planned habitat acquisitions.

Accomplishments

Over the last five years, NFWF has awarded four grants worth $3.1 million. The outcomes of these grants include:

  1. Acquisition of land for the breeding facility and completion of its technical specifications and the underlying scientific approach to the new breeding program.
  2. Completion of research which concluded that Attwater’s young are affected by red imported fire ants, and captive-reared hens are as successful at raising young as wild hens. Both findings are critical for developing management approaches to ensure the successful re-introduction of Attwater’s in the wild. In particular, the realization that fire ants were devastating local insect populations, populations that hungry Attwater’s chicks depend upon for nourishment, provided a clear path to reducing chick mortality.
  3. Confirmation of the Sutton Center as the lead organization in developing the Attwater’s prairie chicken captive breeding facility. We anticipate the completion of the breeding facility in 2015.  Upon completion, the scientists at the Sutton Center will test the facility using Greater prairie chickens. Should the test prove successful, it is possible that the first Attwater’s chicks will be hatched as early as mid- to late 2015. At full production, the facility will have the capacity to raise 5,000 chicks per year, a number more than ten times the current population.

Conclusion

As of November, 2013, our primary conservation goals have been achieved. We have contributed to a greater understanding of low survival rates among chicks and the captive breeding facility is almost complete. NFWF will continue to manage and administer Attwater’s-designated private funds until the breeding facility is completed.

For additional information about the Sutton Center breeding facility, please visit: http://www.suttoncenter.org/.

 

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