Although the population of lesser prairie chickens has plunged dramatically 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 bird once again reclaim the prairie, The Nature Conservancy in Texas created its first conservation area in the High Plains: Yoakum Dunes Preserve.
Formerly known as the Fitzgerald Ranch, the 6,000-acre parcel is awash in unusual grass species such as sand reed and sand bluestem and is dotted with shinnery oak and sand sage, both small shrubs. Melba Fitzgerald sold the property to The Nature Conservancy after her husband—who represented the third generation of Fitzgerald ranchers—passed away.
The ranch is situated 40 miles southwest of Lubbock and has long been a safe haven for lesser prairie chickens, which are currently candidates for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Prior to the Conservancy’s purchase of the ranch in 2007, biologists had observed more than 300 lesser prairie chickens on the land. Beyond the preserve, the species’ habitat faces pressure from energy development and fragmentation of the land, increased conversion of native grassland to cropland and unsustainable grazing. The population of lesser prairie chickens has declined by 90 percent since the early 1900s and most experts believe there are no more than 5,000 birds remaining in the state.
Fitzgerald Ranch is the largest of several tracts that comprise Yoakum Dunes Preserve; taken together, the preserve boasts more than 7,200 acres. Ongoing land stewardship efforts have helped maintain the area’s native grasslands, which are considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America; birds that thrive in grassland areas have, in fact, experienced steeper population declines than another other group of North American species. Yoakum Dunes will not only provide habitat for the lesser prairie chicken but will offer protection for the Cassin’s sparrow, lark bunting, ferruginous hawk, western burrowing owl, northern bobwhite quail and scaled quail.
The Nature Conservancy is committed to ensuring that the land and wildlife that has long been so important to the Fitzgerald family will be protected for future generations of Texans.
For more information about this or other Conservancy projects, visit nature.org/texas.