Females are drab compared with colorful males (rear), but researchers focus on hens to locate nests and study survival.

Females are drab compared with colorful males (rear), but researchers focus on hens to locate nests and study survival.

© NATURE PHOTOGRAPHERS LTD./ALAMY

Feature: Researchers push to prevent a last dance for the lesser prairie chicken

Once, as many as 2 million lesser prairie chickens occupied the grass and shrublands of the midwestern and southwestern United States. Today, however, just some 22,000 birds remain as a result of habitat loss and other threats. They occupy about 16% of the species' historic range. In 2012 and 2013, a punishing drought hit the heart of the bird's territory, resulting in a decision to list it as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The decision has fueled an urgent $5 million effort, stretching across five states and involving nearly 100 researchers, to learn more about this relatively mysterious bird and save it from extinction. More is at stake than the fate of a single showy bird, whose home range coincides with the heartland of American agriculture and the epicenter of an energy boom. The research effort could help generate tens of millions of dollars to protect prairie habitats—and determine how lucrative industries that employ thousands of people will operate in prairie chicken country. It will test the scientific, political, and economic feasibility of a controversial Obama administration plan to give state governments and private landowners a bigger voice in endangered species management. And it could provide a valuable template for resolving a much bigger looming battle over the fate of another rangeland bird: the sage grouse. "That's the scary and exciting part about doing this work right now," says ecologist Andrew Gregory of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "We're doing work that matters [and is] going to feed directly into management recommendations." The effort is surrounded by controversy. Some members of Congress are trying to block the conservation effort, and at least a dozen industry groups, four states, and three environmental groups are challenging it in federal court. Not surprisingly, industry groups and states generally argue it goes too far; environmentalists say it doesn't go far enough. "The federal government is giving responsibility for managing the bird to the same industries that are pushing it to extinction," says one critic, biologist Jay Lininger of the Center for Biological Diversity in Ashland, Oregon.

To read the full story, see the 19 June issue of Science.