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, TNC purchased the 18,500-acre Creamer Ranch in eastern New Mexico to become the Milnesand Prairie Preserve. In 2009, TNC 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.
Milnesand, New Mexico may be a small dot on the map, but it is big in the heart of New Mexico’s prairie grasslands.