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Patterns in Rangeland Productivity and Land Ownership and What They Mean for Conservation

Ask An Expert: Dr. Brady Allred, Associate Professor of Rangeland Ecology, University of Montana

Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest. ~ Aldo Leopold, Conservation Economics, 1934 essay from The River of the Mother of God: and other Essays by Aldo Leopold

Let’s start with a really basic question. What are rangelands?

Rangelands are non-forested, uncultivated lands that are mostly made up of grasses, forbs, and shrubs.

Where are most of the rangelands in the U.S.?  

Rangelands make up approximately one-third of the lower 48 states. Nearly all of that is in the western half of the nation, spanning the Great Plains to the Pacific coast.

Why are these landscapes so important?

In the continental U.S., rangelands comprise about 35% of the landscape. On a global scale, rangelands make up nearly 40% of the Earth’s ice-free surface. So, scale is one reason. More importantly, they provide numerous ecosystem services, which are benefits that humans gain from ecosystems, including forage and fiber like meat and wool, livelihoods like ranching, and recreation activities like hunting and bird watching.

What is vegetation productivity and specifically, net primary productivity, as it relates to rangelands in the conterminous U.S.?

Ecologically, vegetation production is the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Plants use that energy for their own metabolic processes and also to grow. Net primary production is the amount of energy that accumulates as plant biomass. Productivity is the rate of production over a given time period. Net primary productivity (NPP) is the rate of increase in plant biomass.

Now, that is the scientist in me speaking. When people think of rangeland productivity, they often think of how much grass or forage is produced during a single growing season or year. This is commonly measured locally by clipping and weighing vegetation and then expressed in pounds per acre (lbs/acre). Nearly everyone who has worked in rangelands is familiar with this, and it is fundamentally the same thing as net primary productivity.

Why focus on net primary productivity? In other words, why is quantifying NPP helpful in advancing our understanding of rangeland conservation in the U.S.?

Two specific reasons: 1) there are well established methods to measure productivity across broad geographies using satellite remote sensing, which removes the need to go out and clip plants on every acre of rangeland; and 2) it is an ecological building block, a measure of the ultimate source of energy for all terrestrial species, and it is a “supporting ecosystem service.” A supporting ecosystem service is one that other ecosystem services depend upon.  Measuring net primary productivity gives a little broader perspective than just forage available for grazing animals.

Ecosystem Services Graphic

Ecosystem service categories as specified by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Examples provided are relevant to rangelands and primary productivity, showing how primary productivity, as a supporting ecosystem service, is foundational for the provisional, regulating, and cultural services on rangelands.

Vegetation production is one of the greatest natural assets we have. Being able to quantify rangeland production across space and through time allows us to assess that resource directly. We can evaluate the impact of our management actions on productivity, to see if those actions are helpful or harmful. We can see how productivity is changing in response to conservation practices, drought, or other factors and then plan appropriately. At broad geographies, we can understand the patterns and trends of productivity and develop local, regional, or national conservation strategies to sustainably manage this asset.


Your study looked at the comparative levels of NPP across public lands (federal, state and local), tribal lands, and private lands. What did you find?

Across the Lower 48, we found that the productivity of privately owned rangelands more than doubled that of public and tribal rangelands. We also found that over the last 25 years, there are no meaningful trends in the change of productivity, regardless of ownership, indicating that rangeland productivity has been stable through the years.

Your results match what a lot of people have assumed over the years – that private rangelands are more productive (as a measure of NPP) than public rangelands. Does this mean that private rangelands are better managed than public ones?  


The distribution for rangelands across the coterminous United States (CONUS) showing the spatial patterns of (a) annual productivity and (b) land ownership. The heavy lines indicate the delineation of western states, Great Plains states, and eastern states.

No, absolutely not. This work does not evaluate the management in any sort of way; it simply looks at the rangeland resource available. Those resources are influenced by a myriad of factors, including precipitation and soil. The patterns of productivity are also a function of how the western U.S. was settled: the more productive lands of the Great Plains were largely privatized, while much of the less productive land in the West incorporated into the federal estate or became tribal lands.

How does knowing the NPP levels for different ownership regimes and geographies help land managers (public or private) better manage rangeland in the U.S.?

Separating out the ownership and geographies really enables us to better understand and execute cross-boundary conservation and management strategies. Knowing that the majority of rangeland productivity is owned and managed privately–by normal, everyday people just like you and me–can help us structure regional and national priorities to implement the right management, in the right place, with the right resources.

And of course, this will vary with location. In regions where public rangeland is dominant and interspersed with private or tribal holdings (e.g., the Intermountain West), cooperation will need to exist to conserve the vast acreage of public rangeland, and the higher productivity of private and tribal rangelands. In other areas where public land is largely absent (e.g., the Great Plains), it will be necessary to focus efforts entirely on private rangeland conservation.

Your team analyzed a huge amount of data about rangeland productivity in the US. Did you find any trends?


a) Total production and (b) average productivity for rangelands across CONUS, 1993–2017. Total production and average productivity are consistently higher on private lands than public and tribal lands. Dashed lines represent mean values through time. Despite noticeable interannual variability, there are no significant temporal trends at the CONUS scale.

The droughts of 2011 and 2012 really stood out. Because the drought was largely in the Great Plains, the productivity of private rangelands took a very noticeable drop compared to public and tribal rangelands. It was fascinating to see it bounce right back though, regardless of ownership, indicating a very resilient system. By analyzing such a large amount of data over such a long time frame, our methods allowed us to easily quantify and illustrate this.

There were also no meaningful trends–up or down–of rangeland productivity over the last 25 years. At this scale, rangeland productivity has been largely stable. There are ups and downs, due to better- or worse-than-average climate years, but things have stayed relatively the same.


Your study points out that maintaining rangeland productivity is about more than simply conserving acreage. Can you explain what you mean?

Conserving large tracts of rangeland is absolutely critical for conservation. That conservation can occur individually with one owner (private, public, or tribal) or through a collection of owners working together. But what our findings show is that acreage alone just doesn’t cut it. The quality of rangeland, not just the size, is equally important. In this case, the quality of rangeland is being assessed through productivity, and size or acreage doesn’t necessarily lead to productivity. It is important that our conservation strategies look at the system as a whole, and that we work cooperatively to conserve the high-quality rangeland.

What does all this mean for public and private land managers and for agencies like the NRCS that can tap into technical and financial resources that help conserve and improve rangeland?

I think it really highlights the importance of partnerships and cross-boundary conservation. That is, we want to work together to conserve the best of what we have, regardless of ownership. The degree of these partnerships will vary based on location. The NRCS works cooperatively with private landowners, public land agencies, and other conservation groups to put the best conservation practices in place.

I think it also highlights the critical aspect of privately owned, working lands conservation. Rangeland productivity is a primary driving force for all the ecosystem services that rangelands provide. The vast majority of that productivity occurs on privately owned rangelands, predominantly in the Great Plains. If we want to maintain those ecosystem services, we need to work directly with landowners to do so.

What is next for the datasets your team created and analyzed through this study?

We are currently putting the final touches on this dataset and plan to make it easily accessible through the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) ( Landowners, managers, and practitioners will be able to use it along with our other datasets to plan and evaluate their management actions. Basically, RAP will provide access to vegetation cover data, productivity data, and more. These datasets will make it more efficient and easier to design and implement projects and to monitor what those projects mean on the ground.

Meet the Expert

How did you get into a career studying rangeland ecology? What drew you to this field of study?

Whew, lots of different things. I really enjoy learning about rangeland dynamics at big, broad scales. I also like that this type of work can be used to improve things on the ground.


Dr. Brady Allred

Why is analyzing huge datasets across time and space so important to advancing the science of rangeland ecology?

I think it is really important to “pick our heads up” and look out across the landscape. It allows us to see and understand things that we commonly miss or look past. When we combine that with the finer scale knowledge we have, we are in a really good position to do the best management and conservation we can.

What do you like to do when you’re not “out on the range?”

I just love spending time with my wife and our four children. That can be exploring Montana, helping a neighbor, running, or eating ice cream together.

You can read the original paper, “Patterns of Rangeland Productivity and Land Ownership: Implications for Conservation and Management” in Ecological Applications here.  Authors: Nathaniel P. Robinson, Brady W. Allred, David E. Naugle, Matthew O. Jones

This work was made possible by the NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife effort in support of sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken conservation and the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Program.

Pheasants Forever Provides Critical Support for Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sage Grouse Efforts

Simply put, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) efforts would be far less effective without our network of partners. In the Great Plains and West in particular, the the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI) and the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) benefit immensely from these partnerships.

Few WLFW partners have been as important as Pheasants Forever, particularly for LPCI and SGI. Pheasants Forever recently highlighted its cross-species work in two articles in the Spring 2019 Pheasants Forever Journal of Upland Conservation magazine.

Download and read this article to learn how Pheasants Forever works through partnerships like LPCI and SGI.

While it may seem counterintuitive that a group with “pheasants” in its name would work on sage grouse and lesser prairie-chickens, Ron Leathers, PF’s public finance director, explains the group’s motivation:

“We want to be true to our core, but our mission says ‘and other wildlife,’ and we’re thrilled to help other upland gamebirds when we can benefit pheasants and quail too. Our work on prairie chickens and sage grouse creates a lot of crossover that benefits pheasants and quail too.”

One specific example of how Pheasants Forever supports WLFW’s efforts is through the SGI Field Capacity Coordinator position, staffed by Michael Brown. Funding for the position comes from SGI, but Pheasants Forever is Brown’s employer.

In his role, Brown coordinates on-the-ground conservation through a network of staff who work directly with ranchers and producers to implement projects. This can help build trust with producers who may not want to work directly with the federal government by allowing them to work with an NGO to access resources and assistance provided by NRCS. Brown explains the benefits:

“If producers don’t want to work with the federal government, for whatever reason, they don’t have to. In my experience, we’ve found that people are more willing to work with Pheasants Forever at the beginning because we’re not the government, even though the work might be funded by federal dollars. Then they choose to work with us on subsequent phases of a project because they see that we get work done efficiently and comprehensively.”

Download and read this article to learn more about how Pheasants Forever is helping numerous upland gamebirds, including lesser prairie-chickens.

This approach is precisely why SGI and LPCI have been able to work with thousands of producers to benefit millions of acres of habitat for lesser prairie-chickens, sage grouse, and other wildlife.

Download the stories to read more about how Pheasants Forever plays a key role in benefiting working lands for ranchers, communities, and wildlife. Be sure to check out Pheasants Forever’s website to learn more about this key WLFW partner.

Meet the “New” West Working Lands for Wildlife communications team: Brianna Randall and Greg Peters

Without Telling Our Story, It’s Just a Bunch of Work

This post is from Tim Griffiths, West Working Lands for Wildlife Coordinator. Tim wanted to take a moment to formally introduce Brianna Randall and Greg M. Peters, two members of the Working Lands for Wildlife team focused on communications.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife conservation effort focuses on getting strategically targeted conservation on the ground, working directly with private landowners to make lands and habitats more productive across the country. In the West, much of our work focuses on conserving the working sagebrush rangelands of the Intermountain West and the productive prairies of the southern Great Plains. Although sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken benefit greatly from this work, so do hundreds of other species, including people.

We are proud of the landscape-scale conservation work accomplished in these landscapes over the past decade, work that’s good for the bird and good for the herd. Can you believe that these Working Lands for Wildlife partnerships (through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI)) have teamed up with more than 2,650 ranches to conserve 8.6 million acres? That’s simply incredible! Perhaps even more impressive however are the personal and unique stories behind those statistics.

The NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife effort focuses on many wildlife species, including lesser prairie-chicken and sage grouse.

Without a solid communications program that captures and shares these amazing success stories, the numbers are just that – numbers. We need to continually share the personal side of these win-win stories and highlight the innovative new science that’s helping us be both more efficient and effective at delivering conservation. Through this sustained outreach, we’ll continually increase conservation of working western landscapes.

Over the years, we’ve had a few different folks helping our Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs professionals with communications for both SGI and LPCI.

This year, we’re excited to introduce a team of communicators who will help take Working Lands for Wildlife, and especially LPCI and SGI, communications to a new level.

Brianna Randall may be familiar to folks who have followed SGI over the past several years. She’s been the communications coordinator for SGI since 2015. In that time, she’s helped highlight our successful science-based conservation work in sagebrush country by writing and publishing stories about incredible ranchers and partnerships who have stepped up to make a difference for working lands and wildlife. She’s also helped capture and share the resulting benefits for the wildlife.

Brianna Randall behind the camera at the 2017 Sage Grouse Initiative Workshop in Gunnison, CO.

Fortunately, Brianna is continuing to work on with the Working Lands for Wildlife team as a writer, producing the same compelling content she’s been generating for years. Only now, her geography has expanded to include the landscapes of the southern Great Plains. We’re thrilled to have Brianna continue writing about proactive conservation on western rangelands.

We’re equally excited to introduce a new addition to the team. Please help us in welcoming Greg M. Peters as our new Working Lands for Wildlife communications coordinator. Greg will be taking over much of the day-to-day communications for SGI and LPCI and will manage our website, social media accounts, and develop content in coordination with Brianna and all our excellent NRCS public affairs leads. Greg will be re-energizing our communications as well by developing and sharing new stories. Stay tuned for more content in the coming weeks as Greg gets fully up to speed.

Greg Peters is the new WLFW communications coordinator focused on LPCI and SGI.

Please join us in welcoming Greg and Brianna in their new roles. They are both excited to continue sharing news about the partners, landowners, and science-based conservation practices that are helping improve the Great Plains and sagebrush country. If you have ideas or opportunities, please let us know!

You can reach Brianna Randall at

You can reach Greg Peters at

A Tale of Two Fires: Prescribed Fire Thwarts Wildfire on the New Mexico Prairie

Two lightning-caused wildfires on the same site in eastern New Mexico yielded profoundly different results. Why? Prescribed fire played a key role.

On June 10, 2009, lightning sparked a fire in remote grasslands some 30 miles east of Roswell, New Mexico. Strong winds whipped the flames, stoking a plume-dominated wildfire—the term for fire so hot it creates its own weather and wild, unpredictable winds. By the time firefighters fully contained the Cato Fire three days later, more than 55,000 acres—86 square miles—had burned.

Fast forward eight years to July 2017. Lightning again ignited a wildfire in the same area as the 2009 fire. But this one, called the East Cato Fire, burned just 372 acres before dying out for lack of fuel. Why the profoundly different outcomes from two lightning-caused wildfires in the same location? Prescribed fire played a critical role.

About two-thirds of the acreage that burned in the 2009 wildfire lies within the boundaries of Sand Ranch, a 58,600-acre federally owned parcel 35 miles east of Roswell. It’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, an imperiled species of prairie grouse that inhabits the southern Great Plains.

BLM wildlife biologist Randy Howard lights a prescribed fire on the Sand Ranch in eastern New Mexico. Prescribed fires reduced fuel loads on the land, which in turn reduced the spread of the East Cato wildfire in July 2017.

Sand Ranch encompasses a big swath of potential lesser prairie-chicken habitat, but there’s a whole lot more to good habitat than sheer acreage. Like many other grassland birds, prairie-chickens need diverse grassland structure—a mosaic of grassland patches with varied structure that meets their particular needs throughout the year.

Historically, a closely entwined duo of natural forces—fire and fire-influenced grazing by bison and other large herbivores—created that essential patchwork of grassland habitat. Decades of fire suppression and altered grazing patterns shifted that dynamic, reducing both the structural and species diversity of prairie grasslands.

Because of this, the BLM made careful plans to reintroduce fire to Sand Ranch through prescribed burning. It wasn’t a decision lightly made. While low-intensity fire can help create the vegetation mosaic lesser prairie-chickens need, an uncontrolled, high-intensity fire can destroy nesting habitat, plus a whole lot more. This is dry country and aversion to fire runs deep.

Local rancher Kyle Dillard voiced a common fear as he recalls a wildfire that came on the heels of the intense drought of 2011-12. “My place caught on fire—we burned 5,000 acres from lightning—and it blew for three years. It was a disaster.”

“We had another fire in June [2016] that we started accidentally with our tractor,” Dillard continued. “But it rained right after, and it actually looked really good. If you could predict the rainfall, then fire might be OK.”

That’s just what prescribed burn planning aims to do—to identify site conditions that can produce a contained fire that meets the landowner’s range management objectives, and to time the burn treatments to meet those conditions.

On Sand Ranch, the overarching range management objective is to maintain optimal lesser prairie-chicken habitat, which means creating a dynamic mosaic of vegetation.  Nathan Curnutt, BLM fire management specialist, was tasked with developing and implementing the prescribed burn plan for Sand Ranch.

According to Curnutt, the plan divides Sand Ranch into 15 burn units that can be burned on a rotation schedule. Prescribed fires are carried out prior to prairie-chicken nesting so that birds are not impacted. The goal is to remove about 50 percent of the vegetation within the burn area, creating the vegetative mosaic that lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland wildlife need.

The long planning process came to fruition in 2016, when the BLM’s fire crew carried out the first-ever prescribed burn on Sand Ranch, treating a total of 3,100 acres in two areas. The burns were picture-perfect. Fire snaked through the prairie, leaving behind areas that didn’t burn and areas that did.

A male lesser prairie-chicken carries out his mating display at a lek site in Kansas that burned in a prescribed fire just three days earlier. Photo: Jonathan Lautenbach

Dr. Scott Carleton of New Mexico State University studies lesser prairie-chickens on Sand Ranch and was ecstatic about the burns. “Lesser prairie-chickens were seen out foraging in [the burned area] right after the burn. Within two weeks we had a lek move from an adjoining unburned area to the recently burned area,” he said.

In late February of 2017, the BLM fire crew burned two more areas totaling 10,700 acres. Then in July, the East Cato Fire started, right in the middle of the Sand Ranch, where the huge Cato Fire had burned in 2009. After scorching 372 acres, the East Cato wildfire ran into the grasslands that had burned four months earlier. Starved of fuel, the fire was easily extinguished.

The difference in both economic and ecological costs of wildfire versus prescribed fire are dramatic. The 55,000-acre Cato Fire cost approximately $525,000 to suppress, and it incinerated all grassland habitat in its path. The BLM’s 2017 prescribed fires cost about $40,000, created optimal wildlife habitat, and reduced fuel loads.

That’s why prescribed fire is a core conservation strategy within the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). LPCI offers technical and financial support to farmers and ranchers interested in carrying out voluntary conservation measures that improve their rangelands for lesser prairie-chickens.

Only five percent of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat occurs on public land parcels like Sand Ranch, so engaging private agricultural producers in habitat conservation is essential to the bird’s survival.

The beauty of LPCI’s conservation effort is that what’s good for lesser prairie-chickens is also good for livestock. The healthy habitat that lesser prairie-chickens need is also resilient, productive, drought-resistant forage for livestock—win-win conservation at its best.

LPCI focuses conservation dollars on sites and strategies where efforts are likely to do the most good for lesser prairie-chickens. In terms of both economics and ecological results, prescribed fire is a remarkably effective tool in the conservation toolbox.

Though prescribed burning is not yet an integral part of the ranching culture in eastern New Mexico, the East Cato wildfire offers an encouraging vision of its potential for both recovering grassland habitat and reducing fuel loads in this arid region.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Texas Ranchers Gather for How-to on Wildlife-Friendly Grasslands

By Quenna Terry, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

When farmers and ranchers take time out of their busy schedules to attend a meeting, you can bet the topic’s compelling. For more than 40 agricultural producers who gathered recently at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the day’s topic was managing rangelands to improve wildlife habitat.

More than 40 farmers and ranchers attended the Landowner Wildlife Workshop at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo: Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS

Jordan Menge, range coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), organized the workshop. His cast of presenters drew from the many agencies and organizations that share the goal of conserving native wildlife and rural agriculture, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Quail and Pheasants Forever, Blackwater Valley Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Many of those organizations offer assistance to ranchers to carry out habitat conservation, and the presenters showed how the available programs help ranchers manage range to benefit both wildlife and livestock.

Dr. Blake Grisham from Texas Tech University opened the workshop by sharing the life history and management of the lesser prairie chicken, drawing from research from the panhandle region. Lesser prairie-chicken populations need large tracts of high-quality prairie to survive and reproduce. Biologists consider the lesser prairie-chicken to be an “umbrella species” for habitat conservation because when habitat is optimal for this bird, they benefit countless other members of the Southern Great Plains.

Grisham explained that research still hasn’t fully determined all of the factors contributing to lesser prairie-chicken population declines, but that studies show that habitat fragmentation plays a key role. The additional of vertical structures to the prairie landscape—both in the form of tree encroachment and built structures—adds to that fragmentation. Grisham noted that research will continue to inform our understanding of the most effective management practices for lesser prairie-chicken habitat.  He credited NRCS and its LPCI partnership for supporting his research.

Prescribed fire is an important management tool for improving grasslands for bird and herd. Photo shoes recently burned grasslands at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Quenna Terry, USA-NRCS

NRCS Range Management Specialist Stan Bradbury then shifted the conversation to the practice of prescribed grazing. He emphasized the importance of understanding plant growth, and discussed ways to provide nesting cover for prairie-chickens and other ground-nesting birds through grazing deferment.

Bradbury described how range managers can influence grassland habitat through their choice of where to locate water development, salt and minerals, and fences. Careful planning can help change the composition of plant communities and promote better grazing distribution and utilization.

Bradbury noted how grazing plans are tailored to the particular needs and characteristics of each ranch. “There isn’t a standard grazing system that works for everyone,” Bradbury said. He stressed that careful planning and preparation for drought is an essential part of grazing operations. “Drought plans need to be developed when it’s raining straight down.”

Jordan Menge described ways to improve quail habitat, stressing that, like prairie-chickens, both bobwhite and scaled quail do better in native grasses rather than monocultures. Richard Baker from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out the day with an introduction to prescribed burning as an effective tool for improving grassland health.

Jordan Menge, range coordinator for the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, organized the Landowner Wildlife Workshop and presented on improving quail habitat. Photo: Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS

To accomplish grassland habitat improvements, landowners can take part in a variety of voluntary programs that offer technical and financial assistance. Since the array of programs can be confusing, representatives from each of the assistance agencies described the particular niche of their programs.

NRCS District Conservationist Angel Garcia described NRCS programs, like the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which landowners can take part in to carry out prescribed grazing, drought planning, prescribed fire, woody plant removal, and other practices beneficial to wildlife habitat. For landowners within the active range of the lesser prairie-chicken, additional NRCS funds are available through LPCI.

Ryan Jones from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) discussed programs available through his organization, and Farm Service Agency Executive Director Mark Tucker shared information on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE).  Don Call of Texas Parks and Wildlife described the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

Farmer and rancher Jerry Don Glover, past chairman of the state FSA committee, attended the program.  Glover commented this was one of the best wildlife programs he had been to in a while, stating, “I came to the program because I’ve always been interested in how we can increase wildlife on our land, particularly for pheasant and quail.”

For more information about conservation assistance programs for improving wildlife habitat, contact your local NRCS office at the USDA Service center in your county.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

New Kansas Conservation Easement Protects Lesser Prairie-chickens

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has finalized permanent conservation agreements with three private landowners to conserve 3,682 acres of high-quality lesser prairie-chicken habitat in northwestern Kansas.

“These are the first easements obtained by WAFWA in the shortgrass ecoregion as called for by the Lesser Prairie-chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan,” said Brad Odle, WAFWA’s regional biologist, who worked closely with the landowners to secure the easement.

“We applaud these visionary landowners who are protecting and conserving the landscape as a working ranch that will be enjoyed by future generations. It offers habitat for a whole host of wildlife species, including the lesser prairie-chicken. This is another positive step toward establishing a stronghold for lesser prairie-chicken in this area.”

A stronghold is defined in the range-wide plan as a block of fairly contiguous grassland consisting of at least 25,000 acres that contains at least six active lek sites (mating display grounds). There must also be assurances that all the properties contributing to a stronghold will be protected from future development and managed in a way that is beneficial to lesser prairie-chickens into the future.

The newly conserved grasslands are in close proximity to the 17,290-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (Photo: TNC).

The complex of newly conserved properties is located near the Smoky Valley Ranch, which is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The 17,290-acre ranch is identified in the range-wide plan as a potential focal point around which a stronghold could be established.

With additional easements like the ones just finalized, the Smoky Valley Ranch and nearby permanently conserved properties could become a stronghold for the species.

The permanent conservation easements on the private properties were purchased by WAFWA and will be held and monitored by The Nature Conservancy. The easements restrict future development and activities that would be detrimental to the bird’s habitat. All other property rights associated with the land will be retained by the private landowner.

WAFWA, a key partner within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), has also established an endowment that will provide the landowners with sufficient annual payments to implement a lesser prairie-chicken conservation plan in perpetuity. The primary conservation practice that will be implemented is prescribed grazing, which will be used to maintain sufficient vegetative structure for every phase of the lesser prairie-chicken life cycle. This transaction not only permanently protects key prairie habitat, but also ensures that the properties will remain a working ranch.

“There’s probably no better approach to long-term conservation than a mutually beneficial partnership,” said Matt Bain, Western Kansas Conservation Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s been an honor for the us to be a part of this and help these landowners achieve their long-term vision for their ranch.”

The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA; the state wildlife agencies of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and many non-government conservation organizations. It was developed to conserve lesser prairie-chicken populations by providing another voluntary conservation program for landowner and industry cooperation and improving coordination between state and federal conservation agencies.

Funding for WAFWA’s conservation efforts comes from voluntary mitigation payments by industry partners that are enrolled in the range-wide plan. The plan provides certainty to participants that they will be able to continue operations without interruption.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Fire + Grazing Reduces Wildfire Fuels, Helps Prairie-Chickens, New Research Shows

In 2017, massive wildfires roared over the southern Great Plains, scorching more than 750,000 acres in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Though wildfires are a natural part of life on the Great Plains, more than a century of fire suppression has set the stage for catastrophic wildfires that have caused unprecedented losses to human life, property, livestock, and wildlife in recent years. How can we effectively reduce wildfire risk? New research shows that by pairing prescribed fire with grazing, range managers significantly reduce wildfire fuels.

The fire-grazing treatment—known as pyric herbivory, or, more commonly, patch-burning—also produces the mosaic of diverse grassland habitat that’s just right for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife.

Read the new research report

In the spring of 2016, a wildfire scorched more than 400,000 acres in Kansas alone, making it the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Until 2017, that is. A massive wildfire in March burned 650,000 acres in Kansas. (photo: Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News via AP)

On the Great Plains, wildfires are three times more frequent and four times bigger than they were thirty years ago. Some of the biggest increases in both size and frequency have occurred in the southern Great Plains. That’s an immense problem for both people and wildlife.

Led by Dr. Dwayne Elmore of Oklahoma State University, the research team studied the effects of management that used prescribed fire alone (no grazing) versus management that used a combination of fire and grazing known as pyric herbivory, or patch-burn grazing.

What is patch-burning?

Patch-burning mimics the natural duo of forces—fire and grazing—that together shaped prairie-habitat for thousands of years. Ignited by lightning and by native tribes, fire killed encroaching woody plants and prompted the vigorous re-sprouting and germination of native prairie vegetation. This succulent new growth, high in protein-rich forbs, attracted herds of large herbivores, which intensively grazed the recently burned area. The resulting habitat was a mosaic of newly burned areas scattered among grassland patches of varied ages since burning.

Ranchers mimic this process by burning portions of a pasture each year. Livestock are naturally drawn to focus grazing on the tender new growth.

This dynamic tag-team of patchy fire and grazing yields far-reaching benefits to the land—improved soil health and nutrient cycling, increased native plant and wildlife diversity, reduced invasive plants, reduced fuels for wildfire, increased drought resilience, and increased carbon sequestration.

Cattle on the Hashknife Ranch in Kansas graze a section of pasture burned just a few days earlier.

These changes, in turn, yield greater production of higher quality forage for livestock. Previous studies have already shown that patch burning increases overall biodiversity, and that diverse vegetation within a pasture produces greater stability in annual weight gain for cattle.

Why is patch-burning good for prairie-chickens? They need the kind of structurally diverse grassland habitat that patchy fire followed by grazing produces. Lesser prairie-chickens use areas with low-growing vegetation for lekking, tall and dense vegetation for nesting cover, and moderate height vegetation with lots of protein-packed invertebrates (which are known to increase in diversity and abundance following fire) for brooding rearing.

To both benefit prairie-chickens and reduce fire danger, management practices must promote structural diversity and reduce fire behavior characteristics—namely flame length and rate of spread.

What the research found

Patch-burn grazing (pyric herbivory) creates a mosaic of grassland habitat of various ages, density, height, and biodiversity–great for cattle and for lesser prairie-chickens.

The research team’s study shows that prescribed fire alone has limited utility in reducing fuel build-up, since the plant biomass quickly rebuilds in the absence of grazing. On its own, prescribed fire would need to be performed annually to keep the fuel load down. That fire frequency would reduce biodiversity, creating a uniform grassland landscape that lacks the kind of structural and species diversity that lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife need.

The team found that patch-burn grazing, however, significantly reduced flame lengths and rates of fire spread for an extended period of time. Moreover, subtle changes in weather from day to night—like reduced wind speed and increased fuel moisture—created more significant reductions in flame heights in patch-burned treatments.

The study showed that sites treated with a combination of fire and grazing achieved greater fuels reduction than fire-only sites. Moreover, sites treated with both fire and grazing created the vegetative structure and species mix that best suit prairie-chickens.

Male lesser prairie-chicken performs his mating display on a lek burned three days earlier on the Hashknife Ranch in Kansas, where rancher Ed Koger has practiced patch-burn grazing for many years.

The take-home for management? Don’t defer grazing on burned areas. As the study puts it, “We add to the evidence that deferment of grazing after fire is not warranted, at least in highly productive rangelands, such as those found in the southern Great Plains.”

“Given the reductions in rates of fire spread, we suggest pyric herbivory [patch-burning] could, if implemented at a landscape scale, result in lower area burned by wildfires in the southern Great Plains.”

That’s mighty welcome news in a fire-prone landscape.

Research and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped fund this research. That’s because research studies like this one help ensure that we’re encouraging the right actions in the right places to benefit prairie-chickens. That way, we can strategically direct funds to the places and practices that will yield the greatest conservation return on investment.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Final Report Released on 2017 Lesser Prairie-Chicken Aerial Survey

Since 2012, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has overseen an annual aerial survey to estimate the lesser prairie-chicken population across its range in the southern Great Plains. While the initial results were released in June, the aerial survey team has just released its final report detailing the survey results.

The report looks at this year’s survey findings within the context of the last six years of survey data. Over time, the data will provide important insights about population trends of this grassland-dependent bird.

According to the report, researchers estimated the total population size of lesser prairie-chickens to be:

  • 37,108 birds in 2012;
  • 19,471 in 2013;
  • 23,064 in 2014;
  • 28,875 in 2015;
  • 24,779 in 2016; and
  • 33,269 in 2017.

The research team also estimated a 55% increase in the density and abundance of leks (springtime courtship display and mating grounds) in 2017 relative to 2016.

Over the past six years, they estimated the abundance of lesser prairie-chicken leks to be:

  • 3,470 in 2012;
  • 2,228 in 2013;
  • 2,719 in 2014;
  • 1,713 in 2015;
  • 2,053 in 2016; and
  • 3,186 in 2017

Read the full report on our website. 

Healthy, high-quality habitat is the key to lesser prairie-chicken survival and success. With 95% of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat on private land, the management practices of private landowners have a tremendous impact on the bird’s population. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is all about helping private landowners access technical and financial assistance for voluntary conserve practices that maintain and improve grassland habitat.

During the six-year survey period, the southern Great Plains have experienced significant drought and wildfire. In spite of this, the survey data reveal that population numbers have remained stable.

LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen pointed to the conservation efforts of private landowners as a key factor in that stability. “To show stable populations in the wake of drought and fire, I believe, speaks volumes about the continued conservation efforts occurring across throughout their distribution range,” Hagen said.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

New Conservation Agreements Protect Lesser Prairie-Chicken Habitat

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has finalized permanent conservation agreements with a private landowner to conserve 968 acres of high-quality lesser prairie-chicken habitat in south-central Kansas. In addition, a 160-acre tract owned by another private landowner that is managed with the property will be protected under a 10-year conservation agreement finalized last week. These two tracts of land are immediately adjacent to a 1,781-acre tract which was placed under a permanent conservation agreement earlier this year.

Male lesser prairie-chicken. Photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

The conserved acreage is all native rangeland currently being managed for livestock production, and this historical use will continue. The permanent conservation easement on the 968-acre tract was purchased by WAFWA and will be held and monitored by Pheasants Forever. Both WAFWA and Pheasants Forever are key partner organizations within the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), helping bring about strategic actions that benefit both lesser prairie-chickens and the private landowners that steward their habitat.

“Thanks to conservation-minded landowners, we now have a complex of 2,909 acres being managed with the needs of the lesser prairie-chicken in mind,” said Roger Wolfe, WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Program Manager.  “The ranch is in very good condition due to a long history of good management and there are two active leks on the property.”

The conservation easement restricts future development and activities that would be detrimental to the habitat for the bird. The private landowner will retain all other property rights associated with historical use of the land.

WAFWA has also established an endowment that will provide the landowner with sufficient payments to implement a lesser prairie-chicken conservation plan in perpetuity. This transaction not only permanently protects key prairie habitat, but also ensures that this property will remain a working cattle ranch.

“Pheasants Forever is proud to partner with WAFWA and the private landowners to complete this voluntary conservation easement,” said Jordan Martincich, Director of Development for Pheasants Forever. “The conservation values associated with this project will have a positive impact on wildlife habitat for future generations.  We hope other landowners will partner with Pheasants Forever and WAFWA to perpetually protect their working lands for the benefit of wildlife and the benefit of the ranching community.”

Conservation easements are an important conservation strategy within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, a collaborative effort of WAFWA and the state wildlife agencies of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The plan was developed to ensure conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken by providing a mechanism for voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry and improving coordination between state and federal conservation agencies.

Male lesser prairie-chicken. Photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Funding for WAFWA’s conservation efforts comes from voluntary mitigation payments by industry partners that are enrolled in the plan. The plan allows agriculture producers and industry to continue operations while reducing impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat.

WAFWA’s conservation easements are just one of several conservation assistance programs available to landowners within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. LPCI’s Conservation Assistance Program brochure includes a table that summarizes several available programs. Contact your local NRCS field office to learn more.

Landowners interested in participating in one of the short-term, long-term or permanent conservation options available under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan should contact Roger Wolfe at

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

USDA Releases Five-Year Strategy to Boost Forest Health and Help Golden-winged Warbler

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has just released a new five-year conservation strategy to support private landowners managing for healthier forests in the Appalachian Mountains, part of an ongoing effort to help the golden-winged warbler rebound, and avoid the need for regulation of the species. This strategy serves as a game plan for how USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its conservation partners can best meet their goal of helping landowners adopt bird-friendly practices on more than 15,000 acres of young forests and shrublands over the next five years.

The golden-winged warbler has suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird species in the last 45 years, largely attributed to the decline of young forests that the migratory bird needs for nesting.

In 2012, NRCS selected seven priority species for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), a science-based partnership for wildlife conservation.  Those species include lesser prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse, gopher tortoise, New England cottontail, southern willow flycatcher, bog turtle, and golden-winged warbler. More recently, NRCS added the monarch butterfly to its list of priority species.

With a black-and white facial pattern and touches of yellow on its wings and head, the golden-winged warbler breeds in the deciduous forests of the Great Lakes and Appalachians and then spends its winters in Latin America.

Appalachian forests have widely suffered from “high grade” or “diameter limit” harvests that remove only the most valuable trees. NRCS forest conservation practices renew the economic and wildlife values of deciduous forests. With about 70 percent of the region under private ownership, management decisions of landowners are important to the golden-winged warbler and many game species including turkey, deer and grouse.

“Many of our nation’s forests have fallen into poor health, and we have a tremendous opportunity in Appalachia to make a difference both for landowners and for wildlife,” NRCS Acting Chief Leonard Jordan said. “Our effort is to diversify the age classes of trees in forests, creating patches of forests of different ages, and for the golden-winged warbler, we’re focusing on those younger forests within landscapes dominated by mature forests.”

Research shows the conservation practices are benefiting the golden-winged warbler. The largest assessment of its kind is now underway, and the first three years of data show high nesting success in forests managed using NRCS practices.

This strategy provides guidance on how and where the agency will work with landowners to address habitat loss. It relies on new priority areas for conservation, which were developed last fall with support from American Bird Conservancy and assessment data from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University and other partners. These priority areas use population, forest cover and land use data to direct conservation actions to key areas across the seven-state range.

For WLFW, NRCS targets conservation in Appalachia, which lost 43 percent of its young forest habitat since the 1960s. From 2012 to 2016, landowners have restored more than 13,000 acres of habitat through WLFW partnerships.

Through Farm Bill conservation programs, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help landowners voluntarily plan and implement forestry practices that restore and enhance young forest habitat.

Historically, natural disturbances like wildfires created patches of young forests. Nowa­days, people largely control these natural processes to protect life and property. Through conservation practices, landowners are able to mimic those natural disturbances.

Practices include brush management, creation of conservation cover, early successional habitat development and management, herbaceous weed control and prescribed burning.

Research shows the conservation practices are benefiting the golden-winged warbler. The largest assessment of its kind is now underway, and the first three years of data show high nesting success in forests managed using NRCS practices.

WLFW and other partnership efforts to promote habitat restoration on private and public lands are working. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined protections under the Endangered Species Act were not needed for the New England cottontail and greater sage-grouse, both WLFW target species, largely because of collaborative efforts to conserve habitat on public and private lands. Other successes include the Oregon chub, Arctic grayling, greater sage-grouse, Bi-State sage-grouse and Louisiana black bear.

To learn more about assistance opportunities, landowners should contact their local USDA service center or visit the Conservation Choices for Wildlife – Golden-winged Warbler webpage for more information on available practices.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.