LUBBOCK, TX -- Wildlife experts are starting the third annual helicopter survey to research the populations of the Lesser Prairie Chicken across areas of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.
Past surveys have been extensive, covering more than 300,000 square miles and detecting several new breeding areas for the birds in areas previously unknown as part of the bird's range.
The range survey from 2013 revealed that the population of the prairie chicken was in decline compared to previous years. Biologists blame the ongoing drought for the population decrease, but say that rain and conservation efforts can help the birds.
"Besides rain, what will really help is on-the-ground conservation efforts we're putting in place with the Lesser-Prairie Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan," said Bill Van Pelt, who is the grassland coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
The plan also includes management goals and voluntary conservation programs for the range of the prairie chicken. The plan was also endorsed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which proposed that the bird be listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. That decision is expected on March 31.
The surveys will continue through May, flown at about 35-40 mph about 80 feet above ground.