A Delicate Dance – Insights from a Lifetime in Attwater’s Recovery


hey everybody what’s up this is Al Barrus
with the US Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region listening to Shop Talk he’s not very big for a grouse but what
he lacks for in size he more than makes up for with his impressive dance moves
and vocals he’s the attwater’s prairie chicken in
April about 300 people came to see the males of this barred grouse inflate his
yellow air sacs and shimmy back and forth for his annual meeting ritual
celebrated at the festival and national wildlife refuge bearing their name there
are only a few dozen of the chickens left living in the wild mostly at the
refuge near Houston they once numbered about 1 million birds throughout the
coastal grasslands of modern-day Texas and Louisiana like most endangered
species their numbers have been shrinking over the past century due to
habitat loss in more recent decades the expansion of invasive red fire ants to
the southeastern US has dealt a near final blow to this prairie chicken subspecies by
spring of 2014 they numbered around 100 left in the wild in the spring of 2016
flooding wipe out an entire generation of nests and eggs the next summer in
2017 hurricane Harvey spelled further to
disaster the heavy rains drove the birds along with their predators to the remaining slivers of dry land a few who remained were gathered up by biologists and
sheltered at the Houston Zoo they’ve since been repatriated to the refuge so
far 2018 has been stable and the attwaters festival attendees weren’t
disappointed this year to get a deeper look on the recovery signs today we’re
talking shop with Mike Morrow he’s a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists at
the Atwater prairie chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake Texas he
earned his PhD studying the attwaters along with other partners
Mike’s charged with the daunting task of recovering a bird whose wild population
is heavily dependent on captive breeding and sheltering in zoos the attwater’s
prairie chicken is essentially functionally extirpated from the wild and so we
have several captive rearing facilities at several zoos across Texas that rear attwaters for release back into the wild we’re releasing birds onto attwaters
prairie chicken National Wildlife Refuge and private ranch land less than three
percent of Texas lands are public and less than 1% of the attwater’s original
habitat the Western Gulf Coastal grasslands remains pristine thus
cooperation with private landowners is the main hope for the recovery yeah attwater’s prairie chicken’s currently occur in two locations in Texas right now one is here
at the attwater prairie chicken refuge where I work the other is on ranch land
in Goliad County Texas being able to work with landowners interested in
restoring Atwater’s population is critical to the ultimate goal of
removing the attwaters from the endangered species list
most of Texas is in private landownership so without the help and
assistance of private landowners covery of the species which is emblematic of
healthy tall grass prairie without the help of landowners recovery of the Atwater’s simply wouldn’t be possible and therein lies the real challenge private
parties can be skeptical about letting their livelihood to public conservation
efforts however what’s good for the Atwater’s prairie chicken is also good for cattle
ranchers that water’s our residents of a good quality coastal Prairie habitat
that once occurred on some six million acres along the coast of Texas in
Louisiana however right now it’s been estimated
that much less than 1% of that six million acres remains one of the early
pioneer researchers that did a lot of research on Atwater’s in the late 30s
and 40s stated that it’s upon the existence of adequate Prairie
habitat that the welfare of the prairie chicken depends so Atwater’s prairie chicken management basically is synonymous with Prairie management so there are several
things that landowners can do that would benefit not only out waters but probably
their ranching and cattle operations as well ranchers that manage their native
prairie grasslands using sound range management practices are already
practicing prairie chicken management so what all I mean by that
prairies in this part of the world are and in general are a very dynamic
ecosystem they evolved with various disturbances that maintain these areas
as grassland if the prairies aren’t disturbed in some way they will
eventually grow up into fresh lands and ultimately forests so things like
grazing and periodic fire are important to maintain prairies but the key is to
apply enough disturbance to maintain the open prairie landscape but not so much
that the characteristic grass species are eliminated cattle have that in
common with the attwater’s they prefer grasses so keeping out invasive brush
and trees is good practice to provide forage ranching the chicken prefers the
grass for an unobscured view and they really depend on that wide-open
landscape to deter predators so that they’re not ambushed they’re very strong
fliers and can outfly just about anything on on wings at waters
management is something that private landowners can and do on their own you
know that can mean cutting brush treating with herbicides treating with
prescribed fire or a combination all of the above those kind of practices you
know not only improve the Prairie for prairie chickens but but also result in
increased forage for livestock operations as well more recently Micah’s
calling has made a major breakthrough that waters recovery they discovered a
major setback for the chicken and it’s something that causes trouble for pretty
much everybody in the southeastern states it’s the red imported fire ant
the fire ants started to make a big impact on Texas lands by the 1960s Mike
and his team discovered that the ants compete with newly hatched chicks for
insect forge which was leading to chick starvation they started treating the
fire ant nests on the refuge land with insecticide if we treated to reduce fire
ants we could increase insect abundance by about 27% but even more importantly
where we treated for fire ants brood survival during that critical 2-week
post hatch was comparable to historic out waters bridge survival so now we
have a solution maintain the prairie landscape with moderate grazing and
periodic fires remove invasive plants and ants things were going swell at the
refuge then along came two consecutive years of devastating floods on the tiny
wild population the workaround for a natural disaster is redundancy the
alders needs more habitat so they can recuperate from future flooding which
happens periodically in this part of the world to get this kind of population
redundancy we need more habitat and this comes down to identifying more lands
that can be converted back to native Prairie so that these disaster events
aren’t so catastrophic to the population a major roadblock to this is the native
grasses have been replaced by an introduced grass which have higher
maintenance cost thanks change for more food for cattle a goal for conservation
agencies is to highlight the economic viability of the native grasses native
prairies have been used to support ranching operations throughout Texas
history native pastures don’t require a lot of monetary inputs in the form of
fertilizer and water to keep them productive like these so-called improved
introduced pastures native prairies can’t be stocked as heavily as improved
pastures it doesn’t carry as many animals per unit of area as safe
pastures planted to introduce species like Bermuda grass
but the data I’ve seen suggests that when looking at the bottom line native
prairies are just as profitable as these introduced improved pastures because
these native grasses and have evolved with periodic droughts that are
characteristic of prairie environments native prairies are probably much more
resilient to these kind of dry conditions than introduced improved
species the economic stability of private lands can be further enhanced
through safe harbor agreements with the US Fish and Wildlife Service which can
protect landowners operations landowners are oftentimes uncomfortable with
creating habitat for a species that is listed the program was developed under
the Endangered Species Act it’s called the safe harbor program whereby
landowners can enter into agreement to manage for the out waters with the hope
that the actions that they put on the landscape will result in an increase in
prairie chickens on the property however as a part of that safe harbor agreement
landowners are only responsible for maintaining the baseline number of
prairie chickens present when the agreement was signed and for most
remaining grasslands within the historic range of out waters that baseline is
currently 0 that gives the landowner some flexibility if they change their
mind about their management in the future and it you know relieve them from
stress and worry over potential burdens that the endangered species or
perceptions of burdens may impose if they do indeed change their minds and
want to take management of the property in a different direction sometime down
the road Mike Morrow has been working with the out waters for several decades
and while recent years have been hard for the attwater’s numbers he’s
confident the recovery is on the horizon I’ve been working with Pat Waters for a
long time you know more than 30 years if you count the time I was spent in
graduate school it’s been an incredibly frustrating ride at times but I will say
even with the setbacks that we’ve had in the last 2 or 3 years with weather I’ll
say and on just blowing smoke that I feel more
optimistic about the out waters recovery now that I have for most of my 30-year
career yes the add water is in a tough spot now but we think we now know what
the limiting factor was that frustrated our efforts for so long so we know what
to do and the data that we’ve been able to collect so far indicate that we’re on
the right track mother nature’s Delta so during a bad luck with the weather in
recent years but that’s not going to last forever and I’m I’m more confident
I’ve ever been that you know we’re going to make some significant strides in the
recovery of that waters in the not-too-distant future I don’t want to
count the out waters out yet we’re gonna get there that was Mike morrow with the
US Fish and Wildlife Service southwest region my name is al Burris and that’s
what’s up you

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