But populations of both varieties of prairie chickens (the greater prairie-chicken and the lesser prairie-chicken) have declined to near extinction over the past century, primarily because of the conversion of their native prairie grassland habitat to forestland and farmland. Today, this great American bird is losing ground—literally.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Although the prairie chicken may not be famous across the United States, it is well known in the Midwest where it is honored and celebrated. There’s the world’s largest prairie chicken—a 13-foot tall statue—in the town of Rothsay, the self-proclaimed prairie chicken capital of Minnesota. There’s a prairie chicken capital of the world, too: Cassoday, Kansas. Prairie chicken festivals are held throughout the Midwest, perhaps the biggest is the annual Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival, which is an economic draw for the local community and gives visitors from all over the country a chance to witness the Greater Prairie-Chicken’s unusual courting ritual.

Peg Kohring, the Fund’s Midwest director, says watching the prairie chicken dance is on her top 10 list of life experiences: “You would not believe how exciting it is to sit in a prairie chicken blind at dawn with a warm cup of coffee waiting for the birds to boom. Then you hear stamping and raise the blind flap to see this magnificent male prairie chicken filling up the orange pouch on the side of his neck and making the booming sound. While the male is stamping his feet, moving in a circle and showing off, the females nonchalantly walk through the group of males who are doing their best to impress them!”

In Wisconsin, the plight of the prairie chicken has brought together landowners, public agencies and conservation groups in a widespread effort to protect grassland habitat. We helped with the preservation of prime tallgrass prairie habitat that lies adjacent to the Buena Vista Wildlife Area in the state’s last Greater Prairie-Chicken stronghold. The Fund purchased the land from Blue Top Farms Inc. and plans to transfer ownership to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to manage as habitat for a variety of grassland birds.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Its name suggests this variety of prairie chicken is inferior, but the lesser prairie-chicken is nearly identical to the greater-prairie chicken and even exhibits the same grand mating dance that draws birders from around the country. However, in addition to its size, the only thing ‘lesser’ about this bird compared to its greater counterpart is its population, which is far less abundant. In fact, the lesser prairie-chicken is a candidate for listing as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.

Southeast New Mexico is one of this bird’s most important undisturbed habitats, and in 2008, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) about 35 miles east of Roswell to provide much-needed habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken.  Through several land acquisitions and the purchase of federal and state grazing permits and leases, we’ve helped conserve most of the land within the nearly 58,000-acre ACEC for the species. These conserved lands provide natural corridors that link breeding grounds and are recognized as one of the greatest strongholds for the lesser prairie-chicken and some of the most accessible places in the state to view the prairie chicken in its native habitat.

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