The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is seven miles northeast of Eagle Lake in eastern Colorado County. Attwater's prairie chicken, a subspecies of the heath hen named for Henry P. Attwater, was once one of the most abundant prairie residents of Texas and Louisiana. It inhabited eight million acres from the Coastal Plains to the Mississippi River. The bird's natural range now covers only 46,000 acres, and populations are scattered. The chicken was a popular game bird in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and hunting parties occasionally killed 200 to 300 birds per trip. The prairie chicken became extinct in Louisiana in 1919, and its population in Texas dwindled badly. The state of Texas banned hunting of the bird in 1937, at which time its population was counted at 8,618; in 1967 the number of Attwater prairie chickens had fallen to 1,070, and the bird became an official endangered species. In the mid-1960s the Nature Conservancy of Texas and the World Wildlife Fund purchased 3,500 acres in Colorado County as a preserve for the bird. At that time, the prairie chicken population at the refuge was twenty-five; by the mid-1980s it had risen to more than 200.
The United States government acquired the property in 1972 and made it a national wildlife refuge. Through additional land acquisition, the refuge grew to include 8,000 acres by 1990. The entire Attwater's prairie chicken population of Texas was reported at 900 in 1986 and at 456 in 1992. Additional measures to save the prairie chicken from extinction have included a captive breeding program initiated in 1992 by researchers at Texas A&M University, plans to lease thousands of additional acres of suitable land in Austin and Victoria counties, and efforts to encourage area farmers and ranchers to manage their land in ways that will encourage the chicken's survival.
The Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge is one of the few preserves managed specifically for an endangered species; controlled grazing and burning, strip row cropping, mowing, pest plant control, and predator control are among the management techniques used to improve the habitat. Visitors are permitted to observe the grounds from an automobile tour route and designated walking paths, but no picnicking facilities are provided, and no hunting, fishing, canoeing, or camping is allowed. Access to some areas is tightly controlled during the birds' mating season.
Although the refuge is dedicated to the preservation of the Attwater's prairie chicken, many other birds and animals take advantage of the area. Birds common to the refuge include the white-tailed hawk, the roseate spoonbill, the white ibis, the tricolored heron, and the fulvous whistling duck. Other animals include white-tailed deer, armadillos, coyotes, the endangered Houston toad, water moccasins, and king snakes. More than 250 different flowering plants have also been identified within the refuge. See also PRAIRIE CHICKENS.