LUBBOCK, Texas – Panhandle rancher Jim Bill Anderson has for years been preserving the habitat of the lesser prairie chicken to keep the rare bird from falling onto a federal wildlife watch list.
Now he's hoping other Texans follow his lead and participate in a plan to control brush, manage grazing and conduct planned burns to build and maintain the bird's habitat of low shrub and grasslands.
The plan is part of an agreement signed Thursday by state and federal wildlife officials.
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"We have the habitat they like ... maintain it, and they flourish," said Anderson, who opens some of his thousands of acres to bird-watchers each year.
Beyond helping to ensure the bird's survival, there is an incentive to landlords to join the conservation effort: avoiding further land use restrictions if the lesser prairie chicken [actually a form of grouse] moves from candidate status to threatened or endangered on the federal Endangered Species List.
The bird has been a candidate for the endangered list since 1998, said John Hughes, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's much easier to work with folks before a species is listed than afterward," he said.
Scientists believe prairie chicken numbers have declined 80 percent nationally since 1963, the result of habitat loss and fragmentation, population isolation, drought and changes in land usage.
The population is probably fewer than 5,000 in Texas, and the goal is to double that, state wildlife officials said.
The chickens are found in the northeastern and southwestern corners of the Panhandle.
Landowners who join the effort must allow periodic monitoring of their property.
"If you optimize the rangeland, it's good for everything," said Anderson, who also raises cattle.
Conserving the prairie chicken's habitat has the additional benefit of nurturing grasslands for other species, such as the pronghorn antelope, said Heather Whitlaw, a parks and wildlife biologist in Lubbock.
"It's a wonderful tool," she said. "I hope that our landowners will see that this is a win-win for them."