Prairie chickens gather at one of their mating grounds, known as a lek, in rural Harper County. There are an estimated 17,000 birds remaining, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the birds a threatened species.

As a coyote howled in the distance, the rolling, scrubby plains of the Cimarron Bluff Wildlife Management Area in rural Harper County turned into what state biologist Larry Wiemers could only describe as nature’s version of the biker bar.

The males showed up first, long before dawn, posturing, calling out, fighting and preening in hopes of impressing the ladies, who drifted in at their leisure, looking their feathery best.

But after a long dawn of covert appraisals, the females gave the males the cold shoulder and flew the coop, leaving birds and humans alike disappointed.

With only 17,000 chickens left rangewide and a federal threatened species designation recently attached to the lesser prairie chicken, ensuring and encouraging reproduction of the bird has never been more important.

Oklahoma officials are banking on a 373-page, five-state conservation plan to save the species. The plan attempts to protect the chicken and address conservation by balancing the nesting and mating grounds of the chicken with business and agricultural interests in the eight remaining Oklahoma prairie chicken counties — Beaver, Cimarron, Ellis, Harper, Roger Mills, Texas, Woods and Woodward. But not everyone is a fan of the plan.

“(We need to) make common-sense conservation decisions that benefit both the chicken and industry and farmers and ranchers. They’re going to have to co-exist, there’s no two ways about it,” said Allan Janus with the Oklahoma’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, who is spearheading the state’s implementation of the plan.

The recent threatened designation makes it more complex for industry to flourish in western Oklahoma as businesses must be cognizant of where they add oil rigs, build wind turbines, add pipelines or transmission lines or build roadways so as not to disturb the areas where the chickens nest or mate. If the business violates “take,” the federal designation for harming, threatening or harassing a threatened species, it risks stiff federal criminal and civil ramifications.

The state’s plan, which has an enrollment fee of $2.25 per acre per year for industries, provides protection from “take” and eliminates the typically long federal permitting process in habitat areas. Farmers and ranchers, who have ideal nesting and breeding grounds, are eligible for annual payments of $20 to $40 an acre to incentivize the conservation and chicken-friendly practices.

The plan, developed in partnership with Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas — the other four states that have protected prairie chicken habitats — has been in the works for nearly 3.5 years.

It has the blessing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls the chicken’s threatened species designation and enforcement of violations.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Lesli Gray said that program will allow popular prairie chicken festivals, like the one in Woodward that draws bird enthusiasts, to continue unabated. Such festivals are credited with bringing attention to the elusive bird and encouraging conservation efforts.

“We feel that the rangewide plans put in place by the state will have conservation benefits and will (continue to) allow these festivals to take place,” Gray said.

But the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians have filed notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that only a full endangered species designation will save the chickens. The state conservation plan doesn’t do enough, they insist.

“Drought and habitat destruction are devastating the small remaining population of this magnificent grassland bird,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The unenforceable state-level plan and voluntary measures are too little, too late, and will not get traction fast enough to prevent extinction. The lesser prairie chicken needs the full protection of the Endangered Species Act to stem the tide of habitat destruction.”

Janus said landowners in Oklahoma have already agreed to conserve 400,000 acres of chicken habitat in the past year so farmers and ranchers aren’t finding it “unpalatable.” He also noted Oklahoma businesses have pledged more than $30 million over the next three years toward chicken conservation efforts, are continuing to sign up and are changing to their schedules so as to not disrupt mating rituals, which happen from 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. from March 1 through July 15.

“No one is being forced to do this (program). If a company wants protection from take, as defined by the federal government, this is a route they can take,” Janus said.

For awhile, it seemed the chicken was rebounding — last year Kansas even allowed hunting of it — but severe drought in 2011 and 2012, eliminated nearly half the population, leaving less than 3,000 birds alive in Oklahoma, Janus said. Once having 2 million birds rangewide, the bird now survives on just 16 percent of its historical range, conservation groups say. Conservationists said the chicken would need to reach a 10-year average of at least 67,000 birds to be considered for removal from the threatened species list.

“It’s a boom and bust species,” Janus said. “When the weather’s bad, the species just goes down. We’ve been hit by historic levels of drought that’s cut the population at a really bad time.”

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