For a moment, the team at the Houston Zoo was winning. It was early 2016, and the population of Attwater’s prairie chickens was at a record high, with about 250 birds accounted for on Texas’s coastal prairies—the highest number in at least 20 years.
More than a century ago, a million of these birds lived in Texas and Louisiana. But hunting, along with habitat-crushing land development, caused their numbers to dwindle, and by the ’30s there were zero in Louisiana and only about 8,700 in Texas. They were classified as endangered in 1967, but that didn’t do much. The ’90s saw the birds’ numbers drop to just 42.
It was in 1994 that the Houston Zoo launched its breeding program and joined forces with other zoos, refuges, and research departments across the state in an effort to save the species. Over the next decades, endangered-species biologists would spend countless hours observing, hatching, and caring for these small brown birds, which are not chickens at all but members of the grouse family.
Gains were slow to come. The survival rates for chicks are staggeringly low. If even 20 percent of those released into the wild each year survive to see the spring, that counts as a huge success, according to Mike Morrow, a wildlife biologist at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. The birds live in the wild only in and around that refuge—a 10,500-acre, federally protected coastal prairie area outside Eagle Lake, established specifically for their protection—and on privately owned acreage in Goliad County.
In 2005, despite a decade of effort and the release of more than 1,100 birds, biologists counted only 40 living in the wild—dishearteningly, two fewer than when the program launched. But then something happened: They began to make progress. Each year a handful more made it to spring mating season, and the flock grew bit by bit. When the population hit 250 a couple of years ago, that felt like a turning point.
Then, disaster: the Tax Day Floods of 2016 and, the very next year, Harvey. A few weeks after the hurricane swept through, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials notified zoo biologists that roughly 80 percent of the birds living in Goliad had died; they estimated that fewer than 100 were left in total. The lab at the Houston Zoo went silent as the team absorbed the news.
Of course, nobody ever said bringing a species back from the brink of extinction was going to be easy. “Even though it can be discouraging sometimes when, say, a hurricane hits or something else happens,” says April Zimpel, a biologist with the program since 2012, “you have to keep the big picture in mind.”
The biologists redoubled their efforts, and last spring made the trek to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge for the 24th Annual Booming Festival, on their yearly pilgrimage to watch the birds’ mating dance and conduct an official count of how many had made it through winter. The news was grim: Only 26 were left, including the prairie chickens in Goliad, a record low.
But the team isn’t giving up. They released more adolescent birds in August, and next April the male birds will gather in a field once more to stamp their feet, blow their air sacs, and let out their percussive booms, which will entice the females, just as they always do. Once again, Zimpel and her colleagues will be there to take it all in, and to count them one by one. “It’s our job to care about these animals and their survival in the wild,” she says. “It’s important to keep trying.”