Attwater Prairie Chicken Scandal

I realize that this post is not directly related to nutrition. However, I just found out about this story and had to share it.

The Attwater prairie chicken is a member of the North American grouse family. Over a century ago, up to one million of them lived along the coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana. Today, they are limited to two small, isolated colonies in two counties along the Texas coast.

Attwater prairie chickens live on coastal prairie grasslands with tall grasses that are essential to the survival of this species. They have become endangered because the tallgrass prairie has been plowed for farmland and covered by cities. Their habitat has also been lost because of heavy grazing by cattle. Today, less than one percent of coastal prairies remain.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Attwater prairie chicken is considered one of the most endangered birds in North America.The population of Attwater prairie chickens has declined dramatically since 1993, when an estimated 456 Attwater prairie chickens existed in the wild. In 1994, that estimate dropped to 158 birds, and by 1996, only 42 of these birds were left.

In 1995, the Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental group in the United States, obtained a 2,300 acre property near Galveston Bay, known as the Texas City Prairie Preserve by a donation from Mobil Oil. The property contained breeding grounds for the Attwater prairie chicken. At the time, the property was being used for oil and gas drilling. Even though the reserve was intended to protect the habitat of the Attwater prairie chicken, the oil and gas drilling was not stopped. In fact, the Nature Conservancy drilled new natural gas wells and continued cattle grazing on the land. The group has since made millions of dollars off the land.

The Nature Conservancy insisted that neither the gas drilling nor the cattle grazing would harm the chickens. However, many experts and environmental groups disagree.

Since 2012, the Attwater prairie chickens have disappeared from the Texas City Prairie Preserve.

Regardless of the fact that the Attwater prairie chicken is no longer a protected species on the preserve and the land is being used for natural gas drilling and cattle grazing, you will find the following on the Nature Conservancy’s website:

Texas City Prairie Preserve

Roughly 40 miles south of Houston, the Galveston Bay area bustles with activity; ships come and go at some of the busiest ports in the world, shrimpers, oystermen and fishermen prepare their nets, and tourists stroll through the scenic streets of Galveston. And in Texas City, a city of more than 45,000 that is situated on the southwest shoreline of Galveston Bay, The Nature Conservancy is working diligently to improve the health of the Gulf of Mexico, protect freshwater and preserve habitat for one of North America’s most endangered birds.

Established in 1995 thanks to a $2.2 million land donation from the Mobil Oil Company (now ExxonMobil), the Conservancy’s Texas City Prairie Preserve is 2,303 acres of coastal prairie at the intersection of urban expanse and rural beauty. The coastal grasslands found here are vital to the natural resilience of the Gulf Coast—prairies and marshlands act as a natural buffer during storms and hurricanes, absorbing and dispersing water from storm surges and floods. The sponge-like qualities of the prairie are also important for filtering the freshwater that flows into the Gulf of Mexico—more than three million gallons enter the Gulf from the Mississippi River alone.

In order to mitigate the impacts of excessive land subsidence and restore the preserve’s surrounding marshlands and coastal prairie, the Conservancy has partnered with the Texas General Land Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Galveston Bay Estuaries Program to implement a series of living shoreline projects. Over the last half-century, the shoreline at Texas City Prairie—along with much of the Galveston Bay area—has become more vulnerable to wave action and land loss due to subsidence, which occurs when excessive amounts of groundwater have been withdrawn from an aquifer. Once that occurs, the layers of clay within the aquifer compress and settle, which lowers the ground surface area from which the groundwater is being pumped. Once that groundwater water has been removed from the sediment, it cannot be replaced.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

Federally endangered in the United States, the Attwater’s prairie chicken suffered a precipitous drop in population during the 20th century. In 1900, there were around 1,000,000 individuals, but by 1999, less than 50 remained in the wild. Once found in Gulf Coast prairies from Texas to southwest Louisiana, the bird is now limited to remnant populations along the Texas coast. Less than one percent of its original range remains in suitable condition. In addition to pressures from loss of habitat, both juvenile and adult birds are at risk from predation by falcons, hawks and other raptors, as well as terrestrial species such as coyotes, raccoons and snakes.

Habitat for this critically imperiled species is protected at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge and at The Nature Conservancy’s Texas City Prairie Preserve. The Conservancy is also a partner in the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Recovery Team — comprised of local, state and federal conservation agencies and non-governmental partners—that strives to increase production of healthy captive-bred birds for release into the wild.

The possible extinction of the Attwater Prairie Chicken has become a stark example of the dangers of allowing corporate influence on the boards and finances of conservation groups that seem to have opposing interests.

Over this holiday season, you will undeniably receive requests from several non-profit organizations for support. While there are many very good NGOs doing very useful work, I would recommend that you take the time to research the organization you are thinking about donating to in order to ensure that their principles are in line with yours.

Everyone dollar you spend is a way for you to vote for what’s important to you. Make sure you know where your money is going and what you are voting for.

* Information from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website (; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website (; Wilson, Janet. “Wildlife Shares Nest with Profit.” Los Angeles Times 20 August 2002 (; Stephens, Joe and David B. Ottaway. “How a Bid to Save a Species Came to Grief.” The Washington Post 5 May 2003 (; Gillis, Justin. “Group Earns Oil Income Despite Pledge on Drilling.” The New York Times 3 August 2014 ( *