Habitat & Conservation  |  12/06/2022

For Love of Lessers


The case for saving a prairie icon

By Chad Love

The performance begins at first light on a windswept expanse of northwest Oklahoma prairie. First one, then two, then a half-dozen birds glide into the small clearing, each staking out its own small piece of territory. Then — as if on cue — they begin a ritual as old as the prairie itself.

Dragging wings on either side of their bodies, male lesser prairie chickens inflate reddish-orange sacs on the sides of their necks, raise a pair of specialized feathers above their heads, stamp their feet and call, all in the hopes of attracting a female. The males maneuver for position, bobbing their heads at one another and fluttering briefly into the air before starting the routine all over again.

I’ll never forget shivering in the cool of an early spring morning while watching this scene play out before me for the first time. For an Oklahoma kid addicted to grass and sky and space, watching those prairie chickens on their lek that morning connected me to something fundamental to my soul, and something which has never let go of me. And that, as the old Robert Frost line goes, has made all the difference. We are lucky to get — much less recognize — such transformative moments in life, and I cherish that memory.

But that was a long time ago, and that lek hasn’t felt the drumming feet of a chicken in many years. Eons of evolutionary memory — ingrained, entwined, intrinsic — had compelled them, brought them back, and held them to that spot for untold generations. But in the span of two decades something far more powerful than evolutionary history swept them away, and with them went an integral, irreplaceable part of the landscape itself.

The lesser prairie chicken is a species on the brink. A bird that once numbered in the millions and occupied a huge swath of the southern plains, a bird that is as iconic a symbol of our grassland wildness as the bison, has dwindled to an estimated 27,000 birds, and was recently listed as endangered across parts of its remaining range, and threatened in the remainder.

How did it come to this? The usual suspects, of course. A century of habitat loss and fragmentation has decimated lesser prairie chicken numbers. These wondrous and unique prairie birds that scorn trees for grass and horizon and when they fly glide from one endless forever to another, past sight and sound and knowing, are now in very real danger of gliding into history.

It is not the purpose of this blog to give the reasons why. For an excellent synopsis of the historic and current situation, read this blog by Ron Leathers, PF & QF’s chief conservation officer. What I’m focusing on is the “why care?”

And the answer to that question is very simple: Because wildness matters, in whatever form it takes and wherever it may be found. We see ourselves in the things we choose to protect. What we do to wildness, we ultimately do to ourselves.

Listing the lesser prairie chicken will never return it to its former numbers or its former glory.

But that’s not the point of saving it. The point of saving it is this: We need wild things and wild places all around us to remind us of who we are as stewards of what little remains, and we need that wildness as living, breathing markers of history, both ours and theirs.

Could you imagine what an early spring morning on the southern plains might have looked and sounded like a century ago? What an amazing spectacle it must have been. And how sad would it be, and what a huge loss to our collective soul and spirit, to not have some remnant of that spectacle remaining?

The fate of the lesser prairie chicken — for either good or ill — is not a foregone conclusion, not by a long shot. There is reason for despair, yes, but there is even more reason for hope. This is a galvanizing, historic moment for all of us who care about the uplands, and it is a chance that does not come along often. And it must be grasped, fiercely, if we are to save this one small part of our environmental, ecological, and cultural heritage.

And that’s exactly what we’ll do. The lesser prairie chicken will not disappear on our watch. Through the work of our organization, our partners, and the private landowners who make up the vast bulk of the lesser’s remaining range, we’ll find a way. There is no other choice. To do nothing, to give up, is to lose a part of ourselves.

And for those birds whose everything is inextricably tied to this one spot; whose very existence is utterly dependent on this single, inconsequential speck on the vast map of all that is and what will ever be, where will they go then? Who will even remember the sight and sound of a booming chicken in the golden, slanted light of a prairie morning? That would be a loss beyond measure.

There are reminders all around us, if we care to look for them, of what our magnificent grasslands were like in the not-too-distant past: A small patch of unbroken native prairie stubbornly hanging on in the face of rampant conversion to cropland, an isolated prairie dog town in a forgotten corner of a prairie, or maybe a few sage-covered sandhills that — when viewed just right — give the brief illusion of a vast geographical continuity free of human encroachment.

Whenever I feel down, I seek out such places. I like to take a walk on the prairie in the golden light of late afternoon, wandering aimlessly through the eternal grass until I find a sage-covered northwest Oklahoma sandhill to sit on, and there I’ll think through my sadness as I watch the arterial pulse of the prairie ebbing and flowing all around me. Prairie therapy is a real thing, and has always been my balm against the often-crashing waves of life.

It is in these moments and in these spots where I find my solace and my hope. One such area, which I return to time and time again, is on a local wildlife management area and overlooks an ancient, long-abandoned lek that — when I first moved here — had a dilapidated observation blind on it. I once asked the area manager about it, and he told me what it was used for, and then added, ‘but there haven’t been any chickens on this lek in years.”

Can a land hold some vestigial memory of what once was but is now gone? I think so, because when I sit there, in my mind I see the ghostly after-image of booming chickens now long gone, and I believe. Hope returns to me. But hope without hard work is just hope, and it’s going to take both to save the lesser prairie chicken. Nothing worth saving is ever easy, but it is always worth it.

Prairie chickens will always enthrall me. They are the embodiment of space and light and grass and wind and beautiful emptiness, and their disappearance from the southern plains would make it a poorer, less wondrous place, and us a poorer and less wondrous people for its loss.

Let’s not let that happen.

Chad Love is the editor of the Quail Forever Journal