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New Mexico

Milnesand Prairie Preserve


The lesser prairie chicken once roamed in abundant numbers across the high plains of five states. Yet since 1900, their populations had plummeted by 97 percent. Now, thanks to efforts to protect some of the best prairie chicken habitat left in the Lower 48, these distinctive "booming" birds have a greater chance of survival. 

In 2005, the Conservancy purchased the 18,500-acre Creamer Ranch in eastern New Mexico to become the Milnesand Prairie Preserve. In 2009, the Conservancy significantly expanded the preserve through its acquisition of the 9,200-acre Johnson Ranch. The preserve, now at 28,000 acres, provides superb condition—unfragmented grassland with oak shrubs providing protective cover for these ground-nesting birds.

Long recognized as the center of the state's prairie chicken population, the Milnesand Prairie Preserve, has more than 50 leks, or display grounds—an extraordinary density of birds. The preserve also provides habitat for the imperiled sand dune lizard, which is endemic to the area, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls, plains leopard frogs and a host of other prairie species.

The area is characterized by rolling sand dunes stabilized by shinnery oak which provides cover for prairie chicken nests. The male birds perform their elaborate mating rituals on leks. At daybreak in the spring, the male birds gather here, spreading their feathers, inflating the brilliant orange sacs on the sides of their necks, and "dance" while making a "booming" noise that can be heard more than a mile away. This display attracts the hens to mate with the males of their choice.

The Conservancy manages this preserve for its conservation values while allowing its former owners to maintain a reduced livestock operation. This collaboration, along with partnerships with other ranchers and federal and state wildlife agencies, should improve the lesser prairie chicken's prospects for recovery.

Grasslands, which make up one-third of New Mexico, are generally regarded as the most endangered ecosystem in North America. Grassland birds were historically found in vast numbers across the prairies of the western Great Plains. Today, the birds of these and other grasslands have shown steeper, more consistent and more geographically widespread declines than any other group of North American species. These losses are a direct result of the declining quality of habitat due to human activities such as conversion of native prairie to agriculture, oil and gas exploration, urban development and suppression of naturally occurring fire.  

Restoration in Action

Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) received two grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund the restoration and creation of nesting habitat to support larger populations of Lesser Prairie Chicken within core breeding areas in southeastern New Mexico. Download the factsheet (pdf. 253 kb)

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