Did Hurricane Harvey Signal the Last Dance for Attwater’s Prairie Chickens?

When you’re teetering on the brink of extinction, it takes only one flood to wash your species off the map.

September 08, 2017

A newly hatched Attwater's prairie chicken


Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Houston area two weeks ago, devastating entire communities and killing at least 70 people. The unprecedented hurricane wrought an enormous amount of human suffering, the extent of which we may not know for some time, if ever.

The region’s biodiversity may have taken a hit as well. An hour’s drive southwest of Houston is the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, home to the last 42 of these birds known to exist in the wild. Prairie chickens, which are noted for their elaborate mating dances, are small and nest on the ground. When a storm poured 8 to 12 inches of rain on their habitat last year, it nearly washed them off the face of the earth. For comparison, in some areas of Texas, Harvey dumped more than 51 inches of rain—the highest rainfall total of any storm in the history of the United States. The state of the wildlife refuge, however, remains unclear at this writing.

“The refuge is inaccessible, and many employees are dealing with storm damage and flooding to their personal homes,” says Beth Ullenberg, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region. “It may be one to two weeks before we can safely access affected lands and facilities to do damage assessments.”

The good news, Ullenberg says, is that the refuge’s managers were able to evacuate all 20 of the adult Attwater’s prairie chickens being held in acclimation pens. So at least some of the captive birds that were getting ready for life in the wild survived.

Those birds had been scheduled to be released September 1, according to Terry Rossignol, who manages the refuge. “We decided to gather them up and return them to the Houston Zoo for their safety. Last word from the zoo was that all are doing fine and gaining weight,” he says.

Each summer between July and mid-September, the conservationists send about 300 captive-bred birds onto Texas’s coastal prairie. Given the timing of the storm, more than half of those birds were already out there. Whether any of them survived the flooding is anyone’s guess.

The odds are not in the prairie chickens’ favor. Even without a once-in-a-million-year storm, every one of these birds that lives to see its second birthday is a small miracle. On top of the perils of habitat loss, snakes and skunks pick the little chickens off at will, as do fire ants. You might think flooding would be a good thing for suppressing fire ant populations―if only they could be dealt with so easily. During floods, these resilient insects bite onto one another’s arms and legs to create living armadas of antdom. Such an awe-inspiring act of nature would be celebrated if these ants weren’t vicious invaders that use their flotillas to colonize new territory. Just look at these millions of fire ants coming ashore during Hurricane Harvey in Cuero, Texas.

But forget the ants (if you can). For now, flooding remains the most dangerous threat to the Attwater’s prairie chicken.

Obviously, with a disaster of this scale, what happened to a few dozen prairie chickens is not the most important story. But the fate of the Attwater’s prairie chicken does serve as an important reminder: When we allow a population’s numbers to slip closer and closer to zero, it takes only one storm―or forest fire, or construction project, or disease outbreak―to send a species into oblivion.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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