About the Refuge

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Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest remnants of coastal prairie habitat remaining in southeast Texas.

The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 60 miles west of Houston, Texas, is home to one of the last populations of the critically endangered Attwater's prairie-chicken, a ground-dwelling grouse of the coastal prairie ecosystem.

The refuge is one of a handful of national wildlife refuges managed specifically for an endangered species; however, many recovery activities for this imperiled bird and management of its declining ecosystem go beyond the Refuge's boundaries.

Once numbering nearly one million birds, the decline of the Attwater’s prairie-chicken population coincided with the period of rapid European settlement of the Texas coastal prairies and their conversion to agricultural use during the late 1800s. The state offered protection as early as 1897 by shortening the length of the hunting season to avoid the breeding season, and hunting seasons for the bird were further shortened and then eventually closed in 1937. A dramatic decline of the Attwater’s prairie-chicken population in the 1960s, combined with increasing national interest in the listing and protection of endangered species, brought about the focused attention of many conservationists and conservation agencies.

Since the 1930s, biologist Valgene Lehmann had chronicled the decline in a series of reports, including a Journal of Wildlife Management article in 1963 in which he wrote “Attwater’s prairie-chicken is very definitely beyond the point of no return.” In 1965, Lehmann was approached by I.V. Duncan and his son Gardner Duncan with an offer to sell 2,580 acres of their land in Colorado County, and Mr. and Mrs. David Wintermann agreed to sell an adjoining 840 acres.

Under the guidance of former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dr. Ira Gabrielson, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) secured funding to acquire both properties at approximately half their market value to establish a preserve for the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. Both families donated the balance of the value of these initial 3,500 acres. Mr. Howard Dogden, former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Director in charge of all WWF lands in Texas, hired local retired State game warden Thomas T. Waddell as a part-time caretaker of the original preserve. Mr. Waddell had worked to protect the prairie-chickens in the area of the refuge since the hunting seasons were closed in 1937.

In 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) contracted Lehmann to update his initial 1937 report on the status of the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. The new report showed alarming trends in the population, from 8,700 birds in 1937 to only 1,070 birds 30 years later. In 1967, the prairie-chicken was designated as endangered when the first list of native fish and wildlife threatened with extinction was published in the Federal Register. The refuge was proposed for establishment by the Director of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (precursor to the Service) on July 16, 1968, when he formally approved a memorandum from his Land Acquisition Advisory Committee, which recommended the new refuge. In that year, the National Park Service designated the WWF lands as the Attwater Prairie-Chicken Preserve National Natural Landmark, part of their National Natural Landmarks Program.

Although these early acquisitions served as the first core sanctuary, the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge was not officially established until July 1, 1972, when 687 acres were purchased by the Service from the Verhuel Estate at the site of the present refuge headquarters. The WWF managed their 3,467-acre preserve until 1973 when it was leased with an option to purchase by the Service. The original Wintermann lands were finally sold to the Service in 1976, and the former Duncan Tract was donated to the Service in 1977. Several other important tracts were acquired in the 1970s, and by January 1980, a core area of 7,984 acres had been acquired for the refuge.
Approximately 2,500 additional acres of coastal prairie habitat have since been purchased in Austin and Colorado counties. In 2010, a three-acre inholding was purchased in Austin County bringing the total refuge management area to approximately 10,541 acres.

The Refuge is specifically managed to maintain or improve native coastal prairie communities for Attwater's prairie-chicken reintroduction and survival, as well as for the benefit of other important fish and wildlife resources.