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Space Chickens

NASA provides area for breeding Attwater’s prairie chickens.

By Arturo Longoria

Perhaps those who settled in the central and upper coast of Texas saw the Attwater’s prairie chicken similarly to how others saw the bison, which seemed countless. Likewise, Attwater prairie chicken numbers appeared equally infinite. But while the ponderous buffalo roamed the Great Plains, the chicken-sized mottled grouse, whose males court females by fanning their tail feathers as they prance and bellow, thrived amid the salty-aired coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana. Indeed, their numbers were vast, with population estimates ranging as high as 2 million birds in the mid-1800s.

But by the 1960s, prairie chicken counts had dwindled to the point where conservationists feared their imminent demise. In 1970, with a population of only a few dozen individuals, the Attwater’s prairie chicken was placed on the endangered species list. It had reached the point of extinction due to agricultural sprawl and an unquenched lust for urbanized property. The region’s natural areas shriveled as human expansion stretched outward, and the prairie chicken’s historic range of 7 million acres shrunk to 1 percent of its former territory.

Despite the endangered listing, prairie chicken numbers continued to fall. Finally, conservationists realized that drastic measures would have to be taken, and in 1994, the Houston Zoo initiated a program to breed the Attwater’s prairie chicken in captivity. The zoo’s plan was to release birds into the wild and thus buttress the frail population. Other forces allied themselves with the zoo’s efforts. The Adopt-A-Prairie Chicken initiative, with help from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, supported similar breeding schemes and research at Texas A&M University that developed a vaccine against the reticuloendotheliosis virus, a disease capable of decimating the species.

The most optimistic plan to date is the partnership between the Houston Zoo and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where in August 2006 a two-acre facility was dedicated to breeding and raising Attwater’s prairie chickens. The zoo had outgrown its own breeding pens, and NASA wanted to combine the venture with an educa-tional setting to instill environmental awareness in school children.

Now, with the union struck, the future for the prairie chicken looks brighter. Scientists hope to raise enough birds to continue augmenting free-ranging populations, and researchers are looking into every aspect of an Attwater’s prairie chicken’s life span. For example, in a study being conducted at the Fort Worth Zoo, dieticians are examining the effects of vitamin E and vitamin A on egg development. Back in Houston, ecological studies are kept current through radio telemetry, habitat management, and the peace and quiet of a newer and more modern breeding locale.

Still, the Attwater’s prairie chicken’s future remains precarious. With so few free-ranging birds, any catastrophic event (disease, storm, fire) could potentially annihilate their presence in the wild. Researchers agree that ultimately habitat will have to be restored, if not to historic boundaries, then at least to greater acreage than what currently exists. And it will take more than NASA or any zoo to accomplish that. The preservation of the Attwater’s prairie chicken and all other species in peril will take the concerted efforts of all of us.

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