It is not easy to recreate a prairie maintained by sweeping wildfires caused by lightning and millions of bison grazing on the landscape.
Though nature did it best, refuge staff and volunteers are working hard and applying the best available science to restore the prairie and bring back the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. By utilizing important management tools like prescribed burns, grazing, predator and fire ant control, and restoring native grasses, the refuge is slowly turning back the clock to reveal a landscape that graced this area before human settlement. Bringing Back the Attwater’s The Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken Recovery Plan outlines tasks to save this species from extinction, and ultimately, to remove it from the endangered species list. To reach a goal of 6,000 breeding adults occupying 300,000 acres, recovery efforts focus on:• Habitat management on both public and private lands (involving voluntary cooperators only)• Public outreach to help generate support for ongoing recovery efforts• Population management consisting of captive breeding and reintroduction efforts• Coordination between government agencies and private interests• Research to provide information necessary for taking efficient steps toward recoveryCaptive BreedingBecause their numbers are so few, a captive breeding program offers the best hope for saving the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. Toward this effort, the first chicks were hatched at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose, Texas, in 1992. Since then, the Houston Zoo, the San Antonio Zoo, Sea World of Texas, Caldwell Zoo and the Abilene Zoo all take part in raising birds destined to return to the wild.Once the chicks become capable of independent survival they leave the breeding facility for release sites on the refuge and elsewhere. Biologists fit each bird with a radio transmitter and a veterinarian checks them over to make sure they are healthy. For the next two weeks the birds live in acclimation pens on the site where they adjust to the prairie their ancestors knew intimately.Private Landowners Doing Their PartMost of the Texas landscape is privately owned. This makes the voluntary cooperation of ranchers and other rural landowners essential for wildlife conservation in the state. A safe harbor agreement between the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was established to help private landowners be a part of the conservation effort to save the Attwater’s. Through the agreement, landowners are able to be involved in restoring and maintaining coastal prairie habitat on their private property through cost sharing and incentives applied to their land. Basically, a safe harbor agreement ensures landowners who allow endangered or threatened species onto their property and are willing to undertake voluntary conservation measures (such as brush control, grazing management, prescribed burning, and periodic monitoring on their property) will not be subjected to land use restrictions or conditions if recovery efforts of that endangered or threatened species on their private property succeeds. Prescribed BurnsNature’s prescription for a prairie requires an occasional dose of fire. Refuge staff burn an average of 2,000 to 3,000 acres annually during the winter months. Burning invigorates grasses by removing dead stems. It also gets rid of brush that aggressively invades the grasslands and overshadows native grasses. Where the Buffalo RoamYou might think the heavy hooves of bison, commonly known as American buffalo, pose an immediate threat to prairie chickens if they happen to be anywhere close by. The opposite is true. The bison and cattle you may see on the refuge help this bird with every mouthful they munch. Their grazing creates spaces between the clumps of native grasses that serve as pathways for young chicks.Beating Back the BrushExotic species never seen on the prairies have taken root and pose a challenge for refuge staff and native plants and wildlife. Prescribed fire helps control Macartney rose, Chinese tallow, and other invasive woody plants. Applying herbicide is sometimes necessary to get rid of them. Not only is the brush un-natural, the thickets serve as hide-outs for skunks, raccoons, and other predators of prairie chicken nests.Planting a Wild PrairieMuch of the refuge consists of virgin prairie that has never been plowed or converted to croplands. On the refuge, you will find formerly cultivated fields on their way to becoming prairie. Refuge staff harvests native grass seeds from the virgin prairie in the fall and then plants them in the former crop fields. In this way, the refuge is bringing back the prairie. Though the process is slow, the dedicated effort is paying off.Growing CropsRefuge staff plant 50 to 100 acres in small food plots annually to make sure the prairie chickens have plenty to eat. Soybeans and sunflowers also provide shelter and an abundant source of insects for chicks during the summer months. Other wildlife species benefit from these food plots as well.Keeping Predators at BayPredators play an important role in ecosystem function. But, with so few birds left, refuge staff must manage predators during nesting season while the bird numbers are so drastically low. Managing predators during the release gives a head start to prairie chickens that are just getting used to life in the wild.
Red Imported Fire AntsThe low survival rate of newly-hatched chicks has long been one of the biggest impediments to the recovery of the critically endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken but today biologists have hope. Mounting evidence suggests that controlling red imported fire ants could be a significant step in keeping the iconic bird on the landscape.
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More than a century ago, up to one million Attwater’s prairie-chickens graced the coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana. Each spring, males gathered to perform an elaborate courtship ritual. They inflated their yellow air sacs and emitted a strange, booming sound across a sea of grasses.