Prairie Chicken Marathon

I DRIVE OUT on Highway 10, leaving Houston behind — past Buc-ee’s gas station with the “cleanest restrooms in America” and over 120 working pumps, past the still-pistoning oil barracks, and past a sign with the hurricane symbol printed in the middle. Beneath its glassy eye, a cryptic command appears: begin control flow when flashing.

Soon I will arrive at Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake, Texas, where, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, twenty-seven out of the twenty-nine known noncaptive birds have been declared dead or missing. The Attwater’s prairie chicken is one of the most endangered species in North America, and as such, the United States government is legally required to take steps toward its preservation. A century ago, there were as many as a million of these grassland grouses living atop the low-lying land that lines the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, north to Bayou Teche in Louisiana. Today, the refuge is one of two places on the planet with productive native breeding grounds — grounds that were drowned by Harvey’s rain.

When I reach the refuge, the water is all gone. It’s winter, and the prairie is the color of blown-out papyrus. The dry spikelets of native bluestems quiver in the cold air. Ranchers graze their cattle here, leaving them to roam for weeks at a time, untended. Before entering the mobile home where the staff live, I watch a whole herd press into the back of a livestock trailer. The staccato sound of their hooves on steel echoes over the otherwise quiet expanse.

I’d flown to Houston to write a story on the Harvey recovery. But I knew my trip would be incomplete without a visit to the refuge, without learning more about the bird the National Resource Defense Council was concerned might soon disappear from the earth forever. It’s not that I wanted, or even thought it possible, to see the rare creature. Rather, I suppose, you could say I wanted to draw close to the idea that we live in a world where a single storm can mean the end of an entire species. A storm that was made more powerful by human beings, by the heat we inadvertently pump into the tropical Atlantic, supercharging the hurricanes that are born there, and by a century of shortsighted development that led to the backfilling and hardscaping of thousands of miles of wetlands where these birds once bred.

John Magera, the acting refuge manager, was at home when Harvey hit and inundated parts of Texas in a previously unimaginable amount of rain. The National Weather Service had to introduce not one but two new colors to its maps just to communicate the severity of the event. As the water continued to fill basements and living rooms, marshes and shopping malls, Magera’s attention turned to the rare birds he had spent more than ten years studying and attempting to protect. While Harvey was unprecedented, he tells me, the sudden drop in resident birds was not. “In the spring of 2016,” he says, “we had the highest survey numbers since recovery started: 126 birds, that was our count. Then, right afterward came the Tax Day Floods. We had sixteen inches of rain that fell in twenty-four hours just north of the refuge. There was no breeding success. And the next year the numbers dropped down to forty-six.”

Of those forty-six birds, twenty-nine (mostly females) were wearing battery-powered radio transmitters as Harvey hit. When the winds died down and the floodwaters subsided, most of the transmitters were sending mortality signals and some had blinked out altogether. Now, five months after Harvey, there are two confirmed hens living on the refuge. When I ask Magera whether this event will mean the end of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, his answer surprises me. “Back in the mid-nineties there were only about thirty birds left, and we got that number up into the hundreds thanks to our captive breeding program,” he says. “I think we can do the same thing again.”

It took about a decade for the team to learn enough about this bird to turn the captive breeding program into a success. Today, concerns over genetic bottlenecking mean that the population living in captivity is closely monitored. “We keep things called studbooks that trace the lineage of each bird,” Magera tells me. “That way we know which birds to breed in order to broaden the genetic diversity of the population.”

In an age when climate change is having pervasive negative effects on biodiversity, critics have begun to ask how we weigh the value of a particular species against the sometimes-high cost of government-mandated preservation. In order to remove the Attwater’s prairie chicken from the endangered species list, the noncaptive population must be held above six thousand breeding birds for a period of a decade or more. This effort would likely cost, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, $192 million (or roughly half the amount spent constructing the nearby NRG Stadium). Lately I have been thinking that talking in this way –– forcing the irrevocable loss of an entire species into everyday economic language –– naturalizes extinction, suggests that the animals, not us, bear some kind of responsibility for their own deaths.

There are 170 Attwater’s prairie chickens in captivity right now, and from the eggs the hens lay, Magera and his team will begin the slow, painstaking work of repopulating the refuge. “When you work with critically endangered species for a long period of time, you learn not to let each individual event impact you,” he says. “Their survival — the survival of all endangered species at this point –– is a marathon, not a sprint.” Thanks to Magera, his team, and the United States taxpayers funding their efforts, the Attwater’s prairie chicken is very much still in the race.

It’s late in the day when I finally leave the trailer behind. I walk out into the dying light and dry prairie grasses. The shadows the pimple mounds throw across the plain are long, making the landscape look like granulated tapioca. Of course, I do not see a single prairie chicken. Do not watch the males suck air into the sacks just below their cheeks, inflating the skin so that it looks like two golden eggs. Do not watch them tap dance across the dirt, and boom and bellow, all in an attempt to attract a mate. It is the wrong season for such a display, and even were I to come in April I am uncertain about whether I would encounter one of these rare birds. What I do know is this: John Magera and the rest of his crew will be here, ears attuned and hopeful that from across the prairie will come the cooing sound of a male calling to a nearby hen.



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