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Research team launches sweeping lesser prairie-chicken predictive model study

Research team launches sweeping lesser prairie-chicken predictive model study

Research by wildlife scientists at Texas Tech University focusing on large-scale landscape and environmental changes could bring new hope to getting a better handle on the fate of the fast-disappearing lesser prairie-chicken. Scientists have estimated that the bird has experienced as much as a 97 percent decline in population size from historic levels.

“Lesser prairie-chickens appear to be particularly sensitive to landscape alterations,” said Blake Grisham, an assistant professor within Texas Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management. “Our goal is to assess changes in lesser prairie-chicken population demography in relation to changes on the landscape.”

Landscape changes under study include conversion to agriculture, oil and gas production, renewable energy, and the Conservation Reserve Program, a taxpayer-paid program that last year kept approximately 31 million acres of marginal farmland out of production. Other changes under review by the research team include environmental variations, such as difference in rainfall variability and unusual heat spikes or cold snaps during nesting.

The $235,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research project titled, “A Range-Wide Assessment of the Influence of Landscape and Environmental Change on Lesser Prairie-Chicken Populations,” is a collaboration between Grisham and Clint Boal, assistant leader of the USGS Texas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Texas Tech. Grisham is a member of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Interstate Working Group Science Team, while lesser prairie-chicken ecology and conservation has been a primary focus of Boal’s research for the last six years.

The research team is set to analyze available data sets beginning in the 1950s and develop a relationship between adult survival, nest survival, and chick production and the these external variables. From there, they’ll downscale climate models and predict future lesser prairie-chicken populations given historical changes to the landscape and predicted changes in temperature, humidity and precipitation.

“Our goal is to make predictions at five- to 10-year intervals out to 2050,” Boal said. “The anticipated outcome will be a predictive model that will allow for spatial and temporal modeling of landscape connectivity that managers can use to develop management scenarios given the climate change forecast for the Great Plains.”

Grisham noted that the three-year project is a continuation of lesser prairie-chicken research program that’s been ongoing at Texas Tech since 2007. The scope of the program has grown since its inception, though. Today, Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management is first to begin assessments on lesser prairie-chicken ecology at the five-state range; Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

The decline in overall population size and range of the lesser prairie-chicken throughout the High Plains portion of the central and southern Great Plains has raised conservation concerns resulting in their current proposed listing as a threatened species under the United States Endangered Species Act. Government officials are working with private landowners to devise voluntary land management plans that could prevent the listings altogether.

Written by Norman Martin

CONTACT: Blake Grisham, Assistant Professor, Department of Natural Resources Management, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-4968 or blake.grisham@ttu.edu 

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