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Lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) | ESA status: Threatened (northern population) and Endangered (southern population)

Lesser prairie chicken

Lesser prairie chickens are endearing little grouse that inhabit shinnery oak and sand sagebrush grasslands in the southern Great Plains. Although comparable in morphology, plumage, and behavior to greater prairie chickens (T. cupido), this species is smaller and has distinctive courtship displays and vocalizations.

Lesser prairie chicken courtship

Like other western grouse, male lesser prairie chickens engage in a communal breeding display each spring to attract females. Both males and females congregate at breeding grounds known as “leks” where the males strut, vocalize (“boom”), and physically confront other males to defend their territories and court females. Males may display their bright yellow eye combs, inflate their red air sacs, flutter-jump, cackle, and stamp their feet.

What are the threats to the lesser prairie chicken?

The lesser prairie chicken’s range has declined by more than 90 percent and its population is among the smallest of North American grouse, recently estimated at just 32,210 birds. Habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, agriculture, oil and gas extraction, wind energy production, herbicides, unnatural fire, and fire suppression are primary threats to the species. Habitat fragmentation from fences and power lines and disturbance from roads, mining, and other activities also affect the birds.

What WildEarth Guardians is doing to preserve the lesser prairie chicken

This species was a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act for more than a decade. We sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formally list it as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Act to support recovery of the species. We also successfully led a broad coalition to create a Bureau of Land Management “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” to protect key habitat for the birds on public land in New Mexico. In 2014, the species was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but was then almost immediately delisted due to a court order. We submitted a new scientific petition to list the species in 2016 that incorporates the most recent science and, in 2022, secured a final rule listing the northern population (birds in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas) as threatened and southern population (birds in New Mexico and Texas) as endangered.

While we celebrate these long-needed protections, work remains. Hostile politicians and the oil and gas industry are mounting an all-out effort to undo ESA protections, challenging the 2022 listing rule in courts and in Congress. We’re guarding the lesser prairie chicken against these political attacks, and working to ensure these rare birds receive the protections they deserve.

Wildlife Press: Lesser prairie chicken