What We Do
Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It drives everything on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands and waters managed within the Refuge System, from the purposes for which ais established to the recreational activities offered to the resource management tools used. Using conservation best practices, the Refuge System manages Service lands and waters to help ensure the survival of native wildlife species.
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, and fire ant control, and restoring native grasses, the refuge is slowly turning back the clock to reveal the landscape that graced this area before human settlement.
Management and Conservation
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 recovery
A captive breeding program offers the best hope for saving the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken because its numbers are so few. Toward this effort, the first chicks were hatched at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose, Texas, in 1992. Multiple zoos and other biological institutions have helped with the captive breeding program since its start. In 2018, Fossil Rim, the Houston Zoo, and the Caldwell Zoo raised more than 450 birds destined to return to the wild.
Once the chicks become capable of independent survival, they leave the breeding facility for their release sites. 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 that their ancestors knew intimately. See the process in this quick video (audio described version).
There is still a need to increase the production of the captive-breeding program, because having more birds available for release will allow the refuge to reintroduce prairie-chickens into more of their former range. The George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, joined the captive breeding team, and in 2019 the center received Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken to start its captive flock.
Private Landowners Doing Their Part
Most 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 are successful.
Nature’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 Cattle Roam
You might think the heavy hooves of cattle pose an immediate threat to prairie chickens if they happen to be anywhere close by. The opposite is true. The 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 Brush
Exotic 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 McCartney rose, Chinese tallow and other invasive woody plants. Applying herbicide is sometimes necessary to get rid of them. Not only is the brush unnatural, the thickets serve as hide-outs for skunks, raccoons, and other predators of prairie chicken nests.
Planting a Wild Prairie
Much 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 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.
Refuge 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 Bay
Predators play an important role in ecosystem function. However, with so few birds left, refuge staff must manage predators during nesting season. 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 Ants
The low survival rate of newly hatched chicks has long been one of the biggest obstacles 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.
Trapping Occurs on this Refuge
Trapping is a wildlife management tool used on some national wildlife refuges. Trapping may be used to protect endangered and threatened species or migratory birds or to control certain wildlife populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also views trapping as a legitimate recreational and economic activity when there are harvestable surpluses of fur-bearing mammals. Outside of Alaska, refuges that permit trapping as a recreational use may require trappers to obtain a refuge special use permit. Signs are posted on refuges where trapping occurs. Contact the refuge manager for specific regulations.
Our Projects and Research
Bringing back an endangered species requires continual research and constant data collection. A big part of this is population monitoring, and for the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, we monitor this through radio telemetry. Our biologists try to radio-collar every hen received from a captive-breeding facility so that our biology interns can track the birds throughout the year. This helps the biologists monitor the prairie-chicken’s movements, find nests in the spring, and know when a prairie-chicken has died. It is especially important to radio-collar hens so that, when she successfully rears a brood, our biologists can find and radio-collar her wild-born chicks when they are old enough.
Federal, State and local law enforcement officers ensure the safety of the public and the protection of natural resources. They address illegal activities, including poaching, taking of endangered species, dumping of trash, illegal operation of all-terrain vehicles, trespassing and more.
Any law enforcement issues should be referred to the refuge manager.
Laws and Regulations
There are a lot of fun, interesting, and educational things you can do on the refuge. Keep in mind, if an activity is not wildlife related and doesn't help in the protection or understanding of wildlife or their habitat, there are probably refuge rules governing this activity. Please check with the refuge management before participating in an activity that could harm the environment or yourself.