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Conservationists work to save a dying species

By Sara Sneath
Jan. 4, 2014 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 3, 2014 at 7:04 p.m.

A truck owned by  Jay Kelso, 49, Attwater's prairie chicken specialist for The Nature Conservancy</a>, is equipped to track prairie chickens  at a ranch in Goliad.

if you go

The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge hosts an annual prairie chicken festival.

•  WHAT: Prairie chicken viewing tours take participants up to one of the booming grounds on the refuge to watch the male prairie chicken's famous courtship dance

WHEN: Second weekend in April

• WHERE: Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, near Eagle Lake

•  BRING: Binoculars or spotting scope

On a spring afternoon in 2009, Henry Wood, 53, of Mission Valley, watched conservationists transfer Attwater's prairie chickens into chain-link acclimation pens on the Refugio-Goliad prairie.

The endangered birds, which look like a cross between a quail and a turkey, were born at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Eagle Lake and were introduced to the prairie in hopes of reestablishing a wild population. The Attwater's would adjust to the prairie environment in the enclosure before being released into the wild.

As a wildlife project leader for Victoria County 4-H, Wood and two senior 4-Hers were given the opportunity to take part in the transfer to the pens, he said. As they were leaving the site, Wood and the 4-Hers witnessed the flight and call of other Attwater's that had already acclimated into the wild.

"Their call was peaceful, somewhat like a quail in the evening. Seeing them fly over the open grassland, well, we knew we were seeing something few others would get to see," Wood said.

Between 2007 and 2011, conservationists released more than 400 captive-bred Attwater's prairie chickens on the Refugio-Goliad prairie, said Kirk Feuerbacher, the coastal prairies project director for The Nature Conservancy. Ten birds remain on the land.

Feuerbacher said one reason there are so few birds left is Attwater's have about a three-year life span, and the birds haven't been released on the Refugio-Goliad prairie in two years.

He said the Refugio-Goliad prairie population has dropped to six males and four females. No birds have died at the site for more than a year, he said, but they also haven't successfully fledged chicks. Six of the 10 birds have working tracking devices, said Jay Kelso, Attwater's prairie chicken specialist for the conservancy.

The birds were also released at the conservancy's Texas City Prairie Preserve and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. There are no prairie chickens left at the Texas City site, Feuerbacher said.

He said that in 2012, conservationists shifted their focus to the Attwater refuge, the only place birds have been released for the past two years.

The prairie chicken population at the Attwater refuge increased 30 percent from spring 2012 to spring 2013 to a total of 66 birds, said Terry Rossignol, the refuge manager. The refuge's goal is to build up the bird's population in the refuge before they begin offsite releases again.

"We're really excited about some work we've been doing that's nailed one of the major reasons we're having a hard time getting these little guys to survive," Rossignol said.

He said research at the refuge has indicated red imported fire ants are attacking freshly hatched prairie chickens and competing for the same food as the chicks. The ants are detrimental to a lot of young wildlife, especially ground-dwelling wildlife like bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer and prairie chickens.

"As these critters hatch out of the egg or on the ground, the fire ants will literally come and eat them alive," Rossignol said.

For the first week of their life, Attwater's survive off the yolk sac out of which they hatch, he said. The young chicks then eat small, soft-bodied insects such as grasshoppers. But red imported fire ants attack other insects, driving the population down, leaving little to nothing for the young chicks to eat.

"About a week or so after they hatch out they die because there are not enough insects out there for them to survive," Rossignol said. "We were finding dead chicks on the ground."

He said Attwater refuge conservationists began treating for fire ants in 2009 and have found that the areas treated for fire ants have more insects than those areas left untreated. Red imported fire ants were accidentally introduced to the United States in the 1930s through a port in Alabama, Rossignol said.

He said the ants were not seen in the same area as the prairie chickens until the early 1970s. Research indicates the fire ants have lead to a recent decline in the Attwater's population, Rossignol said.

But historically, the cause of the Attwater's population decline was the loss of its coastal prairie habitat.

"We can help other species like bobwhite quail by improving the ecosystem for prairie chickens," Rossignol said.

Feuerbacher said conservationists have treated for fire ants on the Refugio-Goliad prairie. They also place small fences around hens in April, while the birds are nesting, to protect eggs from natural predators.

Because Attwater's lay eight to 12 eggs in a clutch, it's possible for the four hens on the Refugio-Goliad prairie to offset the high mortality rate and grow as a population, Feuerbacher said.

Less than 1 percent remains of the original 6 million acres of coastal prairie habitat. There are very few spans of the grasslands greater than 1,000 acres, Feuerbacher said. He said the Refugio-Goliad prairie expands tens of thousands of acres.

"One reason why the Refugio-Goliad prairie is so important is because it's a continuous span of a very, very limited habitat," he said.

Feuerbacher said it's not just the prairie chickens that need the grasslands; the coastal prairie is a major thoroughfare for migration.

He said 99.9 percent of the prairie chicken population is gone. "A lot of the habitat is gone - that is the looming factor."

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