Pitching in to improve the plight of the prairie-chicken

Photo courtesy Mike Womer

Coastal Texas volunteers plan digital project to save species from extinction

As the group of visitors toured a trail in the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, they were advised that they might not see even one of the critically endangered birds.

With less than 150 Attwater’s prairie-chickens left, the tour guide suggested the group take in the beauty of southeast Texas’s unique coastal prairie habitat—itself at risk of vanishing—while scanning 10,000 acres of grassland for one of the elusive two-pound chickens.

To the group’s amazement, a scene unfolded that had rarely been witnessed in decades: a flock of 30 to 40 Attwater’s prairie-chickens taking flight, rising over the prairie together. The birds had first amassed in front of the tour vehicles, with white and brown barred feathers fluttering in the air and the cooing calls reverberating over the prairie.

With a little luck, and some new camera equipment, the refuge near Eagle Lake, TX, plans to show the world unique footage—like this flock in flight—and use storytelling to rally support for the recovery of this ground-dwelling grouse and the habitat it calls home.

A $10,000 grant from Enbridge, along with local fundraising efforts, will allow the organization to produce videos and photography of the Attwater’s prairie-chicken and its habitat. The project coincides with the 50th anniversary of the bird’s addition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list in 1967.

“We want people to be aware of the value of the chickens and the importance of the coastal prairie habitat,” says Sumita Prasad, a board member of the Friends of the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, which receives support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Refuge Friends grant program.

A century ago, there were a million Attwater’s prairie-chickens, named for conservationist Henry Philemon Attwater, living on six million acres of land in Texas and Louisiana. By 1919, the chicken had disappeared from Louisiana, and as of April 2016, “we have 138 birds state-wide in Texas,” says Prasad, noting that the total has risen since 2015.

“It’s a numbers game. When habitat disappears, numbers dwindle and sustaining the species becomes difficult.”

In February 2015, Enbridge became the first private partner to participate in the NFWF Refuge Friends grant program. We now invest $125,000 annually in non-profit groups like the Friends of the Attwater Prairie-Chicken Refuge.

“This is a rare opportunity to help recover a species near extinction in a location where we work and operate,” says Cindy Finch, a senior public affairs advisor with Enbridge. “Our hope is that the new camera equipment and videos will rally the public to learn more about preserving the coastal prairie habitat and helping Attwater’s prairie-chicken thrive.”

The refuge is a first-time recipient of Enbridge’s NFWF partner funding, which is directed toward grassroots conservation efforts in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma.

“I’ve loved the refuge and the plight of the Attwater prairie-chicken for years,” Prasad says. “It’s a story that to me tells us that we have the capacity to do something in our lifetime that could be meaningful.”