Texas by Nature

Saving the Lesser Prairie Chicken

Yoakum Dunes Preserve in Texas High Plains protects part of remaining population

By Clay Carrington

Although lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) populations nosedived across the American Plains over the past hundred years, members of this rare and iconic species managed to survive in patchwork habitat throughout the Texas Panhandle and High Plains.

To help this important bird once again reclaim the prairie, The Nature Conservancy of Texas created its first conservation area in the High Plains: Yoakum Dunes Preserve.

Formerly known as the Fitzgerald Ranch, the 6,700-acre property 40 miles southwest of Lubbock has long been a safe haven for lesser prairie chickens, whose habitat beyond the preserve faces pressure from energy development and fragmentation of the land, increased conversion of native grassland to cropland and unsustainable grazing.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been working in the region for more than a decade, collaborating closely with the Fitzgerald family to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem, work that has clearly helped provide suitable, intact habitat for the birds.

“Grasslands are among the most imperiled habitats on Earth and the High Plains of Texas deserve our conservation focus,” said Jim Bergan, science and stewardship director for The Nature Conservancy of Texas and, as a Texas Tech alumnus, an expert with extensive personal knowledge of the Texas plains. “We hope to build on the established work of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department here to provide a research and conservation-demonstration site for grassland and wildlife-habitat enhancement.”

Melba Fitzgerald sold the property to The Nature Conservancy after her husband, the third generation of Fitzgerald’s to ranch this land, passed away. She said she chose The Nature Conservancy from among prospective buyers because she knew the organization would ensure the land and wildlife that had been so important to her family will be protected for future generations of Texans to enjoy.

Lesser prairie chickens have seen their population decline by 90 percent since the early 1900s and are now a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

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