Ever hanker to escape the sights and sounds of civilization for a few hours and experience the renewing balm of Mother Nature? I did just that a couple weeks ago when I attended the 19th Annual Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival held on a 10,500 acre refuge located half way between Columbus and Sealy, a few miles south of IH 10 on the western side of the San Bernard River. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff and Refuge volunteers conducted tours of the booming grounds, of wildflower and bird life observation sites, and of back country areas where we saw refuge management techniques involving coastal prairie restoration and prairie chicken recovery efforts. I took the refuge management tour and was rewarded with sights of original coastal prairie untouched by man, as well as a male prairie chicken defending his territory. My guide was Terry Rossignol, veteran Refuge Manager who has nearly 30 years experience with the USF&W Service.
A good description of this endangered bird can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attwater's_Prairie_Chicken. It is estimated that over a million of these birds once thrived on over six million acres of coastal prairies, ranging from the Nueces River to Louisiana. Habitat disappeared as towns, farms and ranches took hold along the coast and wildfires were suppressed, giving invasive plant species inroads into the natural ecosystem. By 1919 the bird disappeared from Louisiana according to the USF&W Service. An estimated 8,700 individual were left in Texas by 1937. In 1967 only a thousand birds remained. It was in the ‘60’s that the World Wildlife Fund purchased 3,500 acres in an effort to give this unique creature a chance to remain on this planet. That acreage was transferred to the USF&W Service in 1972 and has since tripled in size.
Like the Whooping Crane, prairie chicken populations ebb and flow, influenced by drought, predators, weather, and reproduction success. Hens lay an average of 12 eggs each year, 30 per cent of which hatch and reach maturity. If the eggs are destroyed early in the nesting season the hen will not mate until the following year. Even if chickens reach maturity the average life expectancy is about two years according to refuge personnel. Not only are the historic aerial and mammal predators present, but a newcomer to the ecosystem is wrecking havoc with these birds and many other forms of wildlife – the imported fire ant. These ants will devour young chicks as they peck their way out of the egg shell. Fire ants are also attributed to declining numbers of quail and other ground nesting birds.
The population of Attwater Prairie Chickens was estimated this spring at 66 birds in the wild and another 171 birds in captivity. Once chicks bred in captivity are ready for release they are fitted with a radio transmitter and put in pens to acclimate to the prairie ecosystem. After release they are tracked by refuge staff. Nesting sites are enclosed with portable fencing and steps taken to repel fire ants. These measures and the use of prescribed burning to remove invasive plant species as well as planting of small food plots are all employed to give the prairie chicken a chance of survival.
The refuge is also home to many other animal species including bobcats, coyotes, snakes, alligators, feral hogs, butterflies, and countless birds such as hawks, ducks, geese, herons, eagles, cranes, doves, owls, woodpeckers, scissor-tail fly catchers, and others. Spring and fall flowering plants include bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and butterfly milk weed. The visitor center offers literature and a video of refuge resources and how to identify various species. A five-mile auto tour loop crosses both wetlands and open prairie. There are also rest rooms and picnic tables for visitor convenience.
There are no entrance fees to visit the refuge. Exit IH10 onto State Highway 36 (marker 720), go south one mile, then take a right on FM 3013 for 10 miles. The entrance is on your right.