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Texas by Nature: Endangered Birds Find Refuge in Refugio

Survival of Attwater's prairie chickens depends on Texas landowners' support


Attwater's Prairie Chicken

Before being released, captive-bred birds spend time in acclimation pens that offer protection from predators and help them adjust to their new homes.

By Jay Harrod

On the coastal prairie in Goliad County, one of Earth's most endangered species is digging in for survival. Amid the high paspalum and native bluestem grass of Texas' coastal prairies, nearly captive-bred Attwater's prairie chickens are being periodically released onto their historic habitat, thanks to the efforts of The Nature Conservancy, Texas heritage ranchers and a slew of concerned private, federal and state groups led by the Coastal Prairies Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative.

These releases, which have been staggered over the past two years, come after more than a decade of intense species management and ongoing captive breeding programs at SeaWorld San Antonio; Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose; and in the Houston, San Antonio, Caldwell and Abilene zoos.

Attwater's prairie chickens once numbered more than a million and ranged across six million acres of tallgrass coastal prairie in Texas and Louisiana. However, only two percent of that original prairie habitat remains today.

Until recently, the only remaining wild populations of this vanishing species existed at the Conservancy's 2,300-acre Texas City Prairie Preserve near Galveston Bay and the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge at Eagle Lake. However, rapid urbanization and broad-scale cultivation have the birds at both sites boxed in, and fewer than 100 survive at these two locations.

Biologists now pin their hopes of reestablishing the species on preserving the rapidly disappearing tallgrass prairie in Texas and working closely with the region's private landowners.

“Our goal is to conserve this coastal prairie, one of the rarest habitat types in Texas,” said Wade Harrell, Ph.D., the Conservancy’s Texas Coastal Prairies Project director and a member of the species recovery team. “This kind of conservation requires the help and participation of private landowners in the area.”

The habitat onto which the captive-bred birds are being released is part of the 70,000-acre Goliad Prairie that, in turn, borders the 30,000-acre Refugio Prairie. This region makes up the largest remaining parcel of suitable habitat for these critically endangered birds.

For more information on the Conservancy’s work in Texas, visit nature.org/texas.


The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.

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