Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken Recovery on the Cusp of Success
The low survival rate of newly-hatched chicks has long been one of the biggest impediments to the recovery of the critically endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken (APC) but today biologists have hope. Mounting evidence suggests that controlling red imported fire ants could be a significant step in keeping the iconic bird on the landscape.
In 2009, personnel at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (APC NWR) near Eagle Lake, Texas began treating for fire ants on a 760-acre area. Results from this treatment found that there were more insects in the treated area when compared to non-treated areas. This is consistent with other studies that have shown that areas infested by fire ants contain 75% fewer insects than uninfested areas.
Many bird species like prairie-chickens and quail depend on insects as a food source for young chicks. Terry Rossignol, Refuge Manager for the APC NWR and Attwater’s prairie-chicken Recovery Team Leader said “Red imported fire ants decimate insect numbers on the prairie to the point that there are not enough for young prairie chicken chicks to feed on when they hatch in the spring.”
The research and treatment conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners adds to the growing body of information documenting the negative impacts of the exotic invasive fire ant on native wildlife. More than 10 years ago, researchers at Texas Tech University documented substantial adverse impacts on the survival of young bobwhite quail and white-tailed deer due to fire ants. For both species, survival of young in areas where fire ants were suppressed was at least two times higher than in areas where fire ants were not reduced.
Because the life span of an APC in the wild is not very long, successful annual reproduction is especially important. “APCs have the potential for high reproduction to offset high mortality rates, but when you add red imported fire ants to the equation, their odds of maintaining a viable population decrease considerably,” said Rossignol. “Our goal is to level the playing field and make sure the birds have a chance against unnatural factors like red imported fire ants.”
In 2009, the refuge began treating for red imported fire ants. In 2010, the chick survival rate during the breeding season was comparable to historic brood survival of Attwater’s. In 2011, the annual spring count indicated 82 birds on the refuge – the most APCs on the refuge since 1990. This brings the state-wide total of 110 birds in 2011, a 150% increase since 2007 when the numbers were 44
“We had a really good season in 2010 which shows that captive-bred APCs can successfully rear their own young in the wild,” said Rossignol. “We can help increase the odds for these young chicks by making sure they have the insects they need to survive.”
Plans are to expand ant treatments on the refuge and other areas where APCs are located. These treatments will not only help increase the endangered bird’s survival, but also will benefit other native species like bobwhite quail and white-tailed deer.
In the 1930’s, red imported fire ants were accidentally introduced at a port in Mobile, Alabama from a ship coming from South America. The economic impact associated with the introduction of the red imported fire ant has cost the Texas economy alone an estimated $1.2 billion a year according to Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension.
More than 125 years ago, up to a million APCs graced the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies. Today, this grouse is found in only three Texas counties: APC NWR in Colorado County; Texas City Prairie Preserve in Galveston County; and, on private lands in Goliad County.
Partners in the APC recovery effort have faced significant challenges watching the species teeter on the precipice of extinction. Due to the commitment and strong partnership efforts of The Texas Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, several universities, Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd., Texas zoological institutions, private landowners, and corporate supporters like Central LifeSciences, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken truly has a chance at recovery and remaining a part of the Texas landscape.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
Photo credit: Nappadal Paothong.