More Seed for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken

By Bronwyn Taylor, Tino Mendietta, Steven Lester, and Gwen Wion, February 2024

In 2021, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began a collaboration with the Southwest Seed Partnership (SWSP) to develop native plant materials in New Mexico. You might think it odd that an agency focused on wildlife would need plant materials. But because wildlife depends on them for food and habitat, native plants are a vital tool in wildlife conservation efforts. The FWS manages nearly one million acres of public land nationally and also works with other agencies and private landowners to manage land for the benefit of species. As part of this SWSP collaboration, the FWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife identified a need for plant materials that could be used to improve habitat for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in the High Plains ecoregion of Eastern New Mexico. Previously found across much of the western Great Plains, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has experienced a 90% reduction in habitat compared to the time of European settlement. Further, Eastern New Mexico is home to a distinct population segment of this species that occurs only in intact shinnery oak and sand sagebrush plant communities. This distinct population segment was recently listed under the Endangered Species Act. The FWS worked with the SWSP to identify three forbs and three grass species that would benefit pollinators and provide forage and habitat structure for the lesser prairie-chicken. We intend to develop local ecotypes of these species for FWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program use in ecological restoration.

We have had opportunities to work with a diverse group of contributors on this project. For example, the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contributed seed collections to this project. With these collections, we established a seed production field in 2023. Santa Ana Pueblo Native Plant Nursery produced 1,350 Ratibida columnifera (prairie coneflower) plugs that were planted into this field at Elk Mountain Farm, Pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico.

A BLM/FWS split seed collection crew based out of the Carlsbad Field Office focused on collection targets for both agencies. Early on in the season, it became clear to the field crew that public land for seed collection is very limited in the high plains of eastern New Mexico. In turn, the FWS connected us with the folks at Weaver Ranch, a private ranch managed primarily for the lesser prairie-chicken and other wildlife. This connection opened the door for scouting and collecting seed on 33,000 acres of private land in our target region!

We want to extend a THANK YOU to all of the partners who have banded together to support the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. We are excited to see this collaboration continue to develop in the coming years!

(1) Male lesser prairie-chicken. Image credit: Kevin Rolle, (2) Prairie coneflower outplanting, (3) Prairie coneflower field at Elk Mountain Farms, (4) FWS seed collection crew: Tino Mendietta, Bronwyn Taylor, and Steven Lester