SELMAN — 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.