Category Archives: LPCI Press Releases

Press Release: USDA-NRCS Announces Funding of the KS Great Plains Grasslands Initiative

Kansas’ Flint Hills, one of the targeted areas included in this new funding announcement. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan Convention and Business Bureau.

This Press Release was originally posted on the Kansas NRCS website on March 11, 2021. Reposted here with permission. See the original press release here.

SALINA, KANSAS, March 11, 2021‒‒Kansas producers have new funding opportunities to help address woody plant encroachment on targeted rangelands through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“Transitioning from productive rangeland to woody plant dominance is the greatest threat to rangeland conservation in Kansas,” said Monty R. Breneman, Acting State Conservationist.  “New scientific tools now provide unprecedented opportunities to track woody encroachment and develop strategic approaches to combat it.  When combined with landowner expertise, we can defend intact grasslands, reduce vulnerability to future encroachment, and cut long-term maintenance costs.”

Core grassland areas in Kansas. Map courtesy of NRCS Kansas.

Woody plant encroachment puts pressure on working rangelands by decreasing livestock production and increasing wildfire risk as well as harming grassland biodiversity and increasing threat to animal species living in this biome.

NRCS is adopting a new approach to addressing this widespread threat through the Kansas Great Plains Grassland Initiative (GPGI).  The initiative is part of the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) framework calling to conserve the last remaining iconic grassland regions in the Great Plains biome.

WLFW is NRCS’s premier approach for conserving America’s working lands to benefit people, wildlife, and rural communities.  WLFW uses win-win solutions to target voluntary, incentive-based conservation to target voluntary, incentive-based conservation that improves agricultural productivity and wildlife habitat on working lands.

The GPGI initiative focuses on earlier prevention strategies and makes producers in targeted rangelands eligible to receive Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding related to addressing woody plant encroachment.  Core grasslands include targeted areas within the Flint Hills, Gypsum Hills, and Smoky Hills regions of Kansas.

Treatment strategies will rely on an integrated pest management conservation system plan to manage woody species encroachment on identified planned land units (PLUs) within the core grassland areas.

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 application evaluation period cut-off date for Kansas GPGI is Friday, July 2, 2021.  Applications submitted prior to the cut-off will be assessed and ranked as soon as the applicant has made treatment decisions in a conservation plan.  Based on fund availability, application assessments with a ranking score of 30 points or greater will be preapproved immediately allowing the applicant to Act Now and achieve contract approval to begin practice installation without being evaluated against other submitted assessments.  Application assessments ranking scores less than 30 points will be batched and funded in ranking order as funding allows.

“The Act Now funding process will allow applicants with high enough application ranking scores to strike while the iron is hot and immediately enter into EQIP contracts,” said Monty R. Breneman, Acting State Conservationist.  “This will enable interested and qualified applicants to perform the needed conservation treatments as soon as they are ready, willing, and able.”

USDA Service Centers are open for business by phone appointment only, and field work will continue with appropriate social distancing.  All Service Center visitors wishing to conduct business are required to call their local Service Center to schedule a phone appointment.  More information can be found at

It is important that applicants provide accurate records of ownership to USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA).  This FY, all landowners are required to file a CCC-902, Farm Operating Plan, along with adjusted gross income and conservation compliance forms.  Application information is available at your local USDA Service Center.  More information is also available at Kansas NRCS.

To learn more about GPGI or other technical and financial assistance available through NRCS conservation programs, visit Get Started with NRCS or contact your local USDA Service Center.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.


Prairie Grouse Meeting Showcases Latest Prairie-Chicken Research

How do range managers know they’re taking the right actions in the right places to conserve at-risk wildlife species? Through rigorous scientific research. That’s why the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative supports lesser prairie-chicken research projects across the southern Great Plains.

During the two-day meeting, LPCI Science Advisor Christian Hagen presented findings on two studies–assessing lesser prairie-chicken occupancy, and reasons for the decline in carrying capacity of lesser prairie-chicken populations.

This research took center stage last week at the 32nd annual Prairie Grouse Technical Council meeting in Dickinson, North Dakota, where more than 60 researchers gathered to share findings.

Three species of prairie grouse inhabit the Great Plains—sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie-chickens, and lesser prairie-chickens. Nearly half of the 32 presentations focused on or included lesser prairie-chickens.

Highlighted studies included:

  • Preliminary findings from a project in southeastern Colorado, where a research team is reintroducing lesser prairie-chickens from the shortgrass prairie of northwestern Kansas to the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeastern Colorado.
  • An update on the annual aerial survey, now in its 7th year, which estimates the abundance of the lesser prairie-chicken across its range.
  • Discussion of causes of the declining carrying capacity of lesser prairie-chicken populations across the southern Great Plain, as well as potential solutions to this problem.
  • The importance of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands for lesser prairie-chicken recovery in Texas.
  • Specific grazing management strategies that can produce the habitat structural diversity and biodiversity that lesser prairie-chickens need, in the absence of fire.

    The meeting included a half-day site visit with many stops along the way, including this one in which Llewellyn Manske presented findings on the effects of 75 years of non-grazing on a mixed grass prairie exclosure.

  • Factors affecting lesser prairie-chicken brood survival in the sand shinnery oak ecoregion of western Texas and eastern New Mexico, including vegetative cover, and insect abundance.
  • Patch-burn grazing as an effective tool for providing the habitat diversity lesser prairie-chickens need throughout the year.

In the coming weeks, LPCI will be producing Science to Solutions summaries of two studies that have significant implications for grassland management in the southern Great Plains. Together the two studies suggest specific practices for managing grasslands to produce the kind of vegetative diversity that lesser prairie-chickens need.

Stay tuned!

Keeping the Grass in CRP Grasslands—LPCI and the Dust Bowl legacy

The Dust Bowl’s legacy has profoundly shaped ranching and wildlife conservation in the southern Great Plains. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative continues the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s long-standing commitment to helping agricultural producers restore healthy grasslands.

Farmer and sons in a dust storm, April, 1936. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo: Arthur Rothstein.

“I’m too young to have been through the Dust Bowl, but both my parents went through it,” Dwight Abell said, as he gazed out over the broad sweep of grasslands on his western Kansas ranch. “And my grandparents of course lived through it, back in the ’30s.”

“It was a bad time for everybody, but [my grandparents] made it through,” Abell said. “They didn’t do a whole lot of farming—they had mostly grass and cows.”

Abell’s great grandparents came to western Kansas in the 1880s. In 1908, they bought land and built the home where Abell and his family now live.

Back in the late 1800s, native prairie grasslands still stretched unbroken across much of the southern Great Plains. Fires regularly swept through, and prairie grasses and forbs responded with an explosion of new growth, which drew hungry herds of bison, pronghorn, and elk. This dynamic duo of fire and grazing by large herbivores shaped a robust prairie community.

Equipped with farming backgrounds and Homestead Act requirements to ‘prove up’ on their 160-acre parcels, most settlers plowed the prairie’s grasslands under and planted crops, even in the southern Great Plains—the hottest, driest region of the Plains.

Map of region hardest hit by during the Dust Bowl, overlaid with the boundaries of current and historic lesser prairie-chicken range. Click map for enlarged view.

During the Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s, homesteaders in the southern plains encountered the formidable limitations of farming in a region of low rainfall, high winds, and frequent droughts.  The native prairie plant community is well adapted to withstand these conditions, but the tilled soil was not. When prolonged drought struck, millions of acres of bone-dry soils lay exposed to the winds that regularly scour this region.

Dust Bowl winds carried off an estimated 480 tons of topsoil per acre in the southern Great Plains. Thick dust hung in the air and settled in deep, rolling drifts that suffocated grasslands, livestock, and wildlife. Poverty and famine gripped the region.

This epic calamity awakened Americans to the importance of preventing soil erosion and prompted the formation of the Soil Erosion Service in 1933. Congress then created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935 (later renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service), to work one-on-one with landowners and help them adopt sustainable agricultural practices that prevent further soil erosion.

NRCS also dispatched a team of scientists to map the region’s diverse soils. These soil survey maps allowed NRCS field staff to tailor conservation practices to meet the particular soil conditions of each farm.

The soil maps also identified areas where the soil was particularly vulnerable to erosion and would benefit from restoration back to grasslands. This restoration practice took a big leap forward in 1985, which the USDA launched the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

CRP offered farmers an alternative to planting fragile soils to crops. Instead, a farmer could receive an annual rent to plant marginal croplands back to grass and maintain them as grassland for 10-15 years. Through CRP, NRCS and FSA joined forces with local farming families and restored large areas of formerly cultivated lands back to prairie grassland.

Lesser prairie-chicken nest in CRP grassland, Kansas. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

It soon became apparent that, in addition to its intended goal of stabilizing soils, CRP also improved habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife. The southern plains region, epicenter of the Dust Bowl, is also the only place on Earth the lesser prairie-chicken inhabits. Once common on the southern Great Plains (scientists estimate a historic population of about one million), their numbers plummeted during the Dust Bowl era, and some thought the bird had gone extinct. They have rebounded somewhat since then, with a current population of about 33,000—a number still low enough to still leave the population highly vulnerable to further decline.

In encouraging recent studies, scientists have found that lesser prairie-chickens have reoccupied portions of their historical range by moving into former croplands now planted to CRP grasslands. What’s more, the birds have expanded beyond the bounds of their historical range in western Kansas by occupying newly created CRP grassland habitat (see map).

But scientists have found that, over time, the wildlife habitat values of restored and idled CRP acres declined, because these grasslands lacked the natural disturbances of large herbivore grazing and fire that historically sustained and revitalized them. Moreover, those CRP grasslands weren’t contributing to landowners’ agricultural operations, since the enrolled acreage had many limitations on mid-contract grazing.

Faced with the questions of how to improve habitat for at-risk wildlife and how to increase agricultural productivity on private agricultural operations, the USDA introduced the “Working Lands for Wildlife” concept, with the unprecedented proposition that strategically focused assistance to landowners could increase populations of at-risk wildlife while improving the sustainability of farms and ranches.

Male lesser prairie-chicken during springtime courtship display. Photo: David Haukos

The NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is a perfect example of this. LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners within the current range of the lesser prairie-chicken who voluntarily enhance lesser prairie-chicken habitat through conservation practices that also benefit their agricultural operations.

LPCI looks at habitat conservation for the lesser prairie-chicken from a landscape perspective, addressing key questions about their overall population dynamics. Where exactly do lesser prairie-chickens currently live, and what are the characteristics of that habitat? What obstacles are inhibiting population growth? Which conservation practices best address those issues? Where should we target these conservation practices to have the greatest return on investment?

While the answers to these questions continue to emerge through on-going research, some things are clear: Lesser prairie-chickens need expansive grassland habitat to survive, with diverse structure for nesting, brood rearing, hiding from predators, and sheltering from weather extremes.

Scientific studies and innovations help fine-tune LPCI’s outreach to landowners. Using detailed mapping of the extent and characteristics of the lesser prairie-chicken’s current range, LPCI identifies and focuses funding on the highest priority areas for conservation efforts—areas of core habitat and areas that have the potential for creating habitat corridors between those core areas.  With more than 95% of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat on private land, engaging private landowners in voluntary conservation practices is essential to the bird’s survival.

Helping ranchers transition their CRP acreage to grazing is one of LPCI’s core conservation strategies. Back in 2005, when Dwight Abell enrolled his land in CRP, he was clear about his management goal. “When we put this land into CRP,” he said, “I told them my intention was, when it comes out, to utilize it for grazing for cattle, and I wanted to use it to benefit the wildlife. I think there’s room for both responsible grazing and for wildlife like prairie-chickens.”

LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners for voluntary conservation practices like prescribed grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire. Photo: Stan Bradbury

Many ranchers share Abell’s vision. CRP currently enrolls more than 4.8 million acres of land within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. But CRP acreage only offers habitat for prairie-chickens and other grassland wildlife as long as it remains grassland. Once a CRP contract expires, that grassland habitat can disappear if it’s more economically viable for the landowner to return the land to crops than to maintain the grassland for grazing.

The infrastructure needed to make the shift to grazing—perimeter fencing, water development, and such—can be prohibitively expensive for private landowners. LPCI helps landowners over that transitional hurdle by providing assistance with grazing management planning and grazing infrastructure, and by offering technical and financial support for forage- and habitat-boosting practices like prescribed fire.

“It’s a win-win for ranchers and chickens,” said Christian Hagen, science advisor to LPCI. “By helping ranchers transition what was once marginal cropland to grazing after CRP contracts expire, we’re helping to maintain viable habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken while supporting the sustainability of working lands and rural economies.”

Rancher Dwight Abell stands by his CRP fields, Kansas. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Abell agrees. “Raising cattle has made us more money every year than farming has—we’re able to keep more,” he said. “I’m 100% committed—I’m not going to tear this [grassland] out. It just works better for our operation to have cattle and grass.”

That economic viability allows for the family’s ranching legacy to continue into the next generation. “Our two boys have talked about wanting to do this too,” Abell said. “They like the lifestyle. They like seeing the cows, the grass—the benefits of living out here.”

From CRP to Grazing—Details on How to Make the Shift

When CRP acres near the end of their 10- to 15-year contract, a rancher can apply to enroll the acreage in another CRP program, like the CRP Grasslands program and the CRP State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program. Each of these CRP programs has limitations—the CRP Grasslands program is aimed at livestock operations with fewer than 100 head of cattle and enrollment is capped at 200 acres. SAFE contracts only permit grazing one out of every three years over the life of the contract. The contracts for both programs run from 10 to 15 years.

Through LPCI, ranchers can access assistance for grazing planning, water development and other infrastructure, prescribed fire, and other conservation practices through three-year contracts with the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In some states, funding for perimeter fencing may also be available through EQIP.

Jordan Menge, LPCI Range Coordinator, notes that, for states within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Action Area (portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico), a certain amount of EQIP funding is set aside specifically for projects that benefit lesser prairie-chicken habitat.

“LPCI funds are available to those producers that are in a focal or connectivity zone within Lesser Prairie Chicken action area or there are known leks within a .5 mile of their property,” said Menge.

Landowners interested in taking part in and LPCI contract to help transition their CRP acreage to grazing should contact their local NRCS field office. A range conservationist can then visit one-on-one with the landowner and discuss assistance options available through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.

What’s in it for My Operation?

LPCI funding helps ranchers bring expired CRP grasslands into grazing production. LPCI and NRCS field staff work one-on-one with ranchers to develop a grazing plan and identify conservation practices and infrastructure that will bring the greatest benefit to ranch operations and lesser prairie-chicken habitat.

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.

Prairie-chicken Restoration Efforts Take Flight in Southeast Colorado

Why did the lesser prairie-chicken cross the state line?

If Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists are successful, the answer will be to rebuild populations of this uncommon prairie grouse, which has mostly disappeared from the grasslands of the southeast corner of the state.

CPW wildlife biologists Jonathan Reitz and Liza Rossi recently completed a month-long effort to catch and relocate lesser prairie-chickens from stronghold populations in Kansas. It’s part of a joint four-year operation between CPW, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, and the U.S. Forest Service to rebuild prairie chicken populations in a 330,000-acre swath of southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas.

Liza Rossi, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Bird Conservation Coordinator, and Trent Delahanty, CPW technician, release two lesser prairie-chickens on the Comanche National Grasslands during a recent relocation from Kansas.

The target recovery area includes privately owned rangeland, Conservation Reserve Program grassland, the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas, and the Comanche National Grassland in Baca County, Colorado. Both the Cimarron and Comanche grasslands are owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Historically, the region was home to large flocks of lesser prairie-chickens, but populations have fallen significantly since Euro-American settlement. By 2016, biologists counted just two males on the Comanche Grassland and five males on the Cimarron.

Christian Hagen, science advisor to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) notes that, while translocating birds is a last resort in conservation triage, it can be effective when done in concert with habitat management or restoration.

“Conservation efforts such as those underway through LPCI and WAFWA [the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies] can help bolster these fragile translocated populations as they make their way in an unfamiliar landscape,” Hagen said.

Both LPCI and WAFWA offer technical and financial assistance to private landowners, who own and manage 95% of the land within the lesser prairie-chicken’s current range, to improve grassland habitat, benefitting both the bird and agricultural operations.

Abby Athen, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, uses calipers to measure a male lesser prairie-chicken.

Last fall, Reitz and Rossi relocated 13 males and one female to Comanche National Grasslands. This spring, they relocated an additional 19 hens and 29 roosters. And they have ambitious goals over the next two years, targeting around 120 lesser prairie-chickens for relocation to Colorado.

But the biologists are discovering a big problem with relocating the birds. Roosters naturally gather in what is known as a “lek” to perform displays designed to attract hens for mating. But they don’t adapt well when their lek is disrupted, often taking flight after relocation in hopes of returning to their home leks.

“Their home lek is the center of their universe,” Reitz said. “Many relocated birds appear to be very unsettled, having been removed from that center.”

“We have observed several prairie chickens having traveled 30 miles or more from the release site,” he said.

CPW biologists are hopeful that the new project, which targets a large number of birds and uses sophisticated technology to retain and track the birds, will succeed.

In the current project, each relocated bird is being banded and outfitted with a radio transmitter. CPW crews on the ground and in the air track the movements of the birds. The transmitters emit a distinct signal when the bird has died, so CPW staff can find them and try to determine a cause of death.

Biologists are employing some high-tech devices to trick the prairie-chickens into staying put after relocation. At release sites, CPW staff is deploying “call boxes” programmed to play cackles and other sounds male lesser prairie-chickens make when displaying on a lek.

“We have technicians on the ground tracking the birds as they spread out,” Reitz said. “We will be using an airplane to find them and point our technicians in the right direction. So we can determine if hens are nesting and whether they succeed in hatching chicks.”

Already, CPW biologists are seeing signs of success. Several of the recently relocated birds are remaining in the release area. And recently, CPW technicians documented a group of relocated birds “booming” together.

More trapping is planned in April 2018 and 2019. A doctoral candidate from Kansas State University will join the project this coming August to assist with the data collection and analysis as tracking and research of the birds’ movements proceeds.

Stay tuned for updates!

New Conservation Strategy Series: Prescribed Grazing Builds Healthy Grasslands

Our Conservation Strategies Series of fact sheets identify and describe LPCI’s core conservation strategies, which benefit ranch operations while improving habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken. Our latest fact sheet highlights prescribed grazing.

Download the fact sheet



Healthy range is productive, drought-resilient, wildlife-friendly range. Sustainable grazing practices keep grasslands healthy and build the long-term economic health of ranch operations. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, offers technical and financial assistance to develop a custom grazing plan and assist with conservation practices that make the vision of healthy rangelands a reality.

Good grazing takes careful planning. At a rancher’s request, LPCI range management specialists assess range conditions and ranch infrastructure to craft a conservation plan. Every grazing plan identifies conservation practices tailored to the needs and goals of the ranch operation, including such practices as water development, brush management, prescribed fire, rest rotation, deferment, and seeding. LPCI financial assistance helps ranchers carry out those practices.

Good planning develops contingencies for changing conditions, like drought. Every LPCI grazing plan includes a drought contingency plan that lays out a clear course of action to minimize long-term damage to the range. That’s good for the ranch’s bottom line, and it’s good for prairie wildlife.

Prescribed Grazing, Step by Step

1. Contact NRCS. Talk one-on-one with NRCS range conservationists to learn about options for getting involved in prescribed grazing. All NRCS assistance programs are voluntary and all conversations are confidential.

2. Planning. Our first step with landowners who take part in LPCI assistance programs is to evaluate existing conditions and develop a conservation plan.

3. Recommend Grazing Utilization. By carefully assessing forage production, the conservation plan identifies sustainable grazing utilization, which can spell the difference between robust range and range that’s over-utilized and damaged.

4. Plan for Drought. Quick, specific, science-based planning for the inevitable droughts of the southern Great Plains helps avoid long-term damage to the range.

5. Custom conservation practices. Water development to distribute grazing, brush management to remove encroaching woody plants, prescribed fire to restore range health, rest rotation and deferment—these are just a few of the conservation practices LPCI helps support.

6. Monitoring. How do we know if the conservation plan is having its intended effect and is doing well by the land and by the landowner? By monitoring range production and utilization.

Benefits of Prescribed Grazing

  • Drought resilience
  • Improved grass & forb species mix
  • More and better quality forage
  • Decreased soil erosion
  • Healthy habitat for wildlife


Rancher Spotlight

Russell Blew, Kansas

“We implemented an EQIP contract on this ranch that included brush management and prescribed grazing,” says Kansas rancher Russell Blew. “By clipping that grass and seeing what species we have out there, seeing what condition the range is actually in, we can put a finer point on our stocking rate. Some people figure 10 acres per cow-calf pair, some people say 8. When you start talking about a herd size of 100 to 200 cow-calf pairs and maybe even more than that, you really need to know how much grass is in a particular paddock. NRCS’s technical support brings some actual science into it.”

“Implementing those practices long term, it’s incredible to see the benefit of the range. We’ve seen desirable [plant] species get a lot better and undesirable species subside. We’re looking at 50-60 years of abuse in a lot of instances, and so it’s going to take more than a few years to get it fixed back up.”

“[NRCS’s] initial role is to help a guy get started and show him that by stocking the range properly, by rotationally grazing it and cutting some trees, he’d see how much better the range is, and then he’d implement those practices, maybe not just for the duration of the contract,  but for the duration of the operation of the land.”

To learn more about LPCI assistance, contact your local NRCS office. 

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 Mesquite-Removal Factsheet Spotlights Conservation Strategy for Landowners

The latest offering in LPCI’s Conservation Strategies Series gives private landowners an overview of the hows and whys of mesquite removal as a core conservation practice that benefits both ranch operations and prairie wildlife.

You can download the Mesquite Removal Conservation Strategies Series fact sheet (PDF), or read the story below: 

Conservation Strategies Series: Mesquite Removal

When mesquite overtakes grasslands, both livestock and prairie wildlife lose out. Removing mesquite increases forage production and improves habitat for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent species.

For ranchers in Texas and New Mexico, honey mesquite encroachment can pose a real problem. Mesquite outcompetes desireable grasses and forbs. If a ranch’s stocking rates remain the same as mesquite cover increases, overgrazing can result, reducing the grassland’s health and resiliency.

While honey mesquite is a natural part of the prairie ecosystem in this region, its density has increased since the late nineteenth century due to suppression of natural fires and spreading of mesquite seed by domestic livestock. Depending on the site and climate, honey mesquite can grow to 25 feet in height with main stems as large as 2 feet in diameter.

Mesquite isn’t just a problem for livestock forage production—it’s a problem for native wildlife. Studies show that lesser prairie-chickens greatly prefer
landscapes with less than 1% mesquite canopy cover. That’s likely because mesquite provides hiding and perching sites for predators.

The prairies of North America evolved under the tag-team disturbances of bison grazing and fire. Bison herds grazed infrequently but intensely. Areas that went ungrazed built up dry fuels that supported wildfires that kept mesquite shrubs in check. Historic cattle ranching brought continuous and often heavy grazing that reduced the grass fuel load needed to carry wildfires.

Benefits of Mesquite Management

  • Increased grassland acreage and productivity, meaning more forage for cattle and more grassland habitat for wildlife.
  • Increased nutrients and water available for grasses and forbs.
  • Increased grassland health, which provides more resiliency and options for producers when drought hits.
  • Increased surface water flow and groundwater recharge for springs.

Managing Mesquite

Killing the plants. Chemical treatment of mesquite can effectively kill mesquite, if done under the right conditions. While hand spraying has the greatest accuracy, it’s very expensive, so aerial spraying is a commonly used option.

Removing the skeletons. Killing the mesquite plant isn’t enough. The mesquite plants continue to occupy potential grassland space, limiting forage production for livestock. What’s more, studies show that prairie chickens avoid mesquite shrubs whether or not they have leaf cover. The above-ground structure of mesquite can be removed by grubbing (digging the root system up with an excavator) or mowing.

Preventing re-encroachment. Prescribed fire is the least expensive of the treatment methods—a cost-effective way to prevent reencroachment. Fire suppresses young mesquite seedlings and limits the number of seed-bearing plants. Older mesquite plants will resprout following fire.

Rancher Spotlight: Bret Riley, New Mexico

Texas rancher Bret Riley, photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

In his Own Words: “The one thing my grandpa used to tell me over and over is that if you take care of your country it’ll take care of you. I think that’s where it starts.”

“The most practical way to control mesquite is by spraying it by aircraft, and that’s what we’ve started doing. Mesquite is hard to kill, and the timing of it is critical. We’ve had one pasture we’ve been planning on spraying for the last three years, and we haven’t got it sprayed yet just because the climatic conditions haven’t been right.”

“In areas that have been treated—the next year even—the grass back in there will be unbelievable because of the amount of moisture that is available, especially in an ecosystem like this where we’re short [on water].”

To learn more about LPCI assistance, contact your local NRCS office. 

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 LPCI Field Staffer Helps Landowners Help the Land in Colorado

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative connects rural landowners with technical and financial assistance to identify and carry out conservation practices that benefit prairie-chickens while maintaining ranch sustainability. The success of our efforts hinges on our field staff members, who work one-on-one with landowners. Meet our newest field staffer, Marina Osier.


“We can have good habitat and good rangeland production—they go hand in hand.” That’s the bottom line for Marina Osier, wildlife biologist with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT).

Osier is the newest member of LPCI ‘s field staff team, based in Lamar, Colorado, on the western edge of the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. Like her teammates in other parts of the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, she’s an essential part of LPCI’s mission to conserve and increase lesser prairie-chicken populations by promoting the health of grazing lands and supporting the long-term sustainability of agricultural operations.

With some 95% of all of lesser prairie-chicken habitat in private hands, the future of this uncommon prairie grouse depends on careful stewardship by private landowners. Fortunately, Osier notes, the conservation practices that benefit prairie-chickens also benefit the rural agricultural producers—ranchers and farmers—who own much of that private land.

“People want to help the lesser prairie-chicken and other wildlife,” she says. “They just don’t want to be locked into something they don’t want to do long-term.” Osier works with interested landowners to explore the range of voluntary conservation assistance available to them and identify programs that will work best for their particular situation.

Part of her work, Osier says, is to clear up misconceptions about the assistance programs. “Some people think we’re going to put chickens on their land and make them take the cows off.”

LPCI field staffer assesses vegetation during conservation planning process.

When a landowner opts to take part in an LPCI technical and financial assistance program and their land meets the criteria for participation, one of the first things Osier does is to assess the diversity, abundance, and health of the ranch’s grassland habitat.

She uses this information to create a conservation plan tailored to the rancher’s goals—one that maximizes benefits to both prairie-chicken and livestock. The plan identifies management practices—like prescribed grazing, woody invasives removal, drought contingency planning, and water system improvements—that help build the health and resiliency of the land. LPCI financial assistance helps ranchers carry out those often-costly management practices.

“I love working with landowners, hearing their stories, and hearing the history they have with the land,” says Osier. “My aim is to find common ground, through actions that preserve their way of life while preserving habitat.”

Osier’s interest in prairie wildlife has its roots in the Iowa soil of her childhood. “My dad was very interested in wildlife, and we’d talk about the birds, trees, and animals,” Osier says.

After graduating from Iowa State University with a forestry degree, she got a summer job looking at habitat for greater prairie-chickens. “I hadn’t heard of prairie-chickens before that job!”

Not long after Osier completed her master’s degree in Georgia, the LPCI SWAT position opened in Lamar, shifting Osier’s focus to the lesser prairie-chicken. In her new role, Osier aims to build connection and conversation with area landowners. “I want to talk with them about chickens—why they’re worth conserving, and how the range improvements that help chickens help their ranch’s productivity.”

Great to have you on the LPCI team, Marina!

New Mexico Range Managers Put Science to Work for Prairie-Chickens

Science-based conservation that benefits wildlife and landowners—that’s what the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is all about. Over the past few years, LPCI—a partnership led by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service—has helped fund research projects across the southern Great Plains, aimed at better understanding lesser prairie-chicken ecology in order to fine-tune conservation practices.

For wildlife biologist Randy Howard, a new mapping tool developed by lesser prairie-chicken researchers is an essential part of his efforts to restore habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife.

Wildlife biologist Randy Howard adjusts the float system on a wildlife tank at the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Ranch in New Mexico.

Howard oversees habitat management at the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Ranch, a 58,600-acre parcel of land 35 miles east of Roswell, New Mexico. Designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Sand Ranch is specifically managed as habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken.

Howard’s toolbox of conservation practices got major boost with the advent of a digital mapping tool that shows with unprecedented detail the extent and density of woody encroachment on prairie habitat in the southern Great Plains. In New Mexico, most woody encroachment comes from a single species—honey mesquite.

“That mapping layer has been awesome for our planning purposes,” Howard said. “Whenever we’re looking at mesquite treatment, we’re using that layer,” In digital mapping, data is organized in “layers” of information, with each layer relating to a particular land feature.

The effectiveness of the new mapping layer is compounded by another ground-breaking study by a research team under the direction of Dr. Scott Carleton of New Mexico State University. The study is the first to quantify the effects of mesquite on lesser prairie-chicken habitat use. Researchers found that lesser prairie-chickens strongly prefer sites with less than 1% mesquite canopy cover and rarely use sites with more than 15% canopy cover.

Results from that study suggest that removing mesquite in low-density (<15% canopy cover) is essential to maintaining or expanding existing habitat and reducing the threat of habitat loss.

When mesquite moves into prairie grasslands, lesser prairie-chickens move out. Photo: Charles Dixon.

Both Carleton’s research and the mapping tool development were funded in part by the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). According to LPCI Science Advisor Christian Hagen, the targeted habitat restoration work underway in New Mexico is a great example of “actionable science.”

“This is the interface of research and management, where conservationists identify, fund, and implement habitat restoration in areas that will have the greatest biological effect for prairie-chickens and other prairie-obligate species,” said Hagen.

Howard noted the tangible impacts of this scientific research on his habitat restoration efforts.  “This mapping layer, along with Carlton’s research, shifted our thinking to prioritizing treatment of low-density mesquite,” said Howard.

This past year, Howard used the mapping tool to select three leks on Sand Ranch for mesquite treatment. “With the mapping layer, you can really see which leks need immediate attention and where you still have time [to do treatment at a later date].”

Leks are critical habitat sites, where male lesser prairie-chickens gather each spring to perform mating displays, spar with other males, and mate with females. Nesting often occurs within a short distance of the lek site.

Howard’s crew treated all mesquite within a ½-mile-wide perimeter around the three leks. Because the mesquite was low-density, the crew was able to hand-spray it using backpack sprayers.

The next, essential step in restoring that habitat for prairie-chickens will be to remove the dead mesquite carcasses, but that can’t be done for three years, since it takes that long for the mesquite plant’s extensive root system to die.

A tree masticator chews up dead mesquite skeletons, eliminating their vertical structure, which repels lesser prairie-chickens.

In the meantime, Howard will be complete treatment of three other sites at Sand Ranch that were hand-sprayed three years ago. They’ll bring in tree masticators to grind up the mesquite carcasses, using funding from the non-profit Center of Excellence, which supports habitat conservation projects for two species of concern in New Mexico—the lesser prairie-chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard.

Howard recently received a $677,000 grant from the Center of Excellence, which he will use to treat 10 priority lek sites across eastern New Mexico. The mapping layer figured prominently in the process of selecting the leks. Biologists from LPCI, US Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Game and Fish, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Center of Excellence, and BLM examined the mapping data and made their recommendations.

In addition to helping range managers identify priority mesquite treatment areas, the mapping layer helps in linking core habitat areas. “Using that mapping layer, we’re able to look at the big picture of habitat management, and we can see where we can connect lek sites with one another,” Howard said.

For example, he said, with the three lek sites they just treated on Sand Ranch, the southernmost lek is separated from the other leks by just ten miles. But because there’s a big swath of mesquite in those 10 miles, the southern lek is effectively isolated.

The mapping tool allows Howard to see where to create effective connectivity corridors. “We can blow a path through that mesquite with aerial spraying and follow up with masticators.”

The resulting mesquite-free habitat won’t just benefit lesser prairie-chickens—it will benefit all grassland-dependent wildlife and the livestock that graze there.

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.

Rangeland Science Journal Publishes Special Issue On Woody Plant Encroachment

Tune in on January 31 for free live-streaming from a symposium on the latest research on the effects of woody encroachment on at-risk grouse in the West!

What do America’s prairies and sagebrush have in common? Grouse, for one. And woody plant invasion, for another.

Species like juniper, pinyon pine, redcedar and mesquite are encroaching onto these landscapes to the detriment of  lesser prairie-chickens and sage grouse, as well as hundreds of other species that depend on healthy, intact rangelands—including people.

The January 2017 issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management is dedicated to research on woodland expansion in the West’s sagebrush and grassland ecosystems. All articles are freely available for viewing.

This month, the Society for Range Management’s scientific journal, Rangeland Ecology & Management (REM), released a special issue focused entirely on this landscape-level threat. Fifteen new research papers, all available for free to the public (see research paper list and links below), describe the impacts of the woody invasion of western rangelands. The research also evaluates habitat restoration using grouse as focal species—the greater sage-grouse in sagebrush country and the lesser prairie-chicken in the southern Great Plains.

For the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, removing these encroaching woody plants has long been a conservation priority through its Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). Since 2010, LPCI has partnered with hundreds of ranchers to remove redcedar and mesquite, restoring rangelands and core habitat for lesser prairie-chickens.

Fires once kept native conifers from expanding into the Great Plains. In the last 150 years, redcedar and mesquite  have spread rapidly across rangeland, pushing prairie-chickens out of their grassland habitat.

Research articles in the January special issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management quantify the extent to which lesser prairie-chickens avoid both redcedar (above) and honey mesquite. Just one redcedar per acre is enough to deter lesser prairie-chicken nesting.

Conifers crowd out native perennial grasses and forbs, decreasing the productivity and richness of the range. If unchecked, the spread of woody plants can reduce the availability of water, food, and cover for grouse and livestock. Plus, woodland expansion increases the risk of soil erosion, invasive weeds, and high-intensity wildfires.

The new issue of REM presents cutting-edge research that will help managers and landowners fine-tune practices that address woody encroachment in both western sagebrush and southern Great Plains habitats, benefiting the wildlife and agricultural producers who depend on these rangelands.

The articles in this special issue cover a broad range of topics, including new mapping tools for effectively targeting conifer removal projects; the impact of mesquite and redcedar encroachment on lesser prairie-chicken habitat occupancy; and the effects of tree removal on sage grouse brood survival, songbird abundance, and ecosystem water availability.

Woody plant encroachment affects habitat for both lesser prairie-chicken (which inhabit the 4 eco-regions in the lower right of this map) and greater sage-grouse (all other denoted ecoregions).

To ensure this research reaches the broadest possible audience, SGI and LPCI have produced several Science to Solutions based on studies published in the latest REM issue. These brief articles summarize key findings and their implications for range management. Stay tuned as we release more Science to Solutions papers this month on the impacts of woody encroachment!

We’re also excited to announce that the research presented in this REM special issue will be the focus of a full-day symposium on January 31 at the upcoming Society for Range Management conference. This symposium will feature 20 short presentations by many of the authors listed below.

And thanks to funding from the Bureau of Land Management, the symposium will be open and available to everyone via live-streaming on the SGI website. Click here to learn more.

Below is a listing with links to the 15 research articles, as well as links to related Science to Solutions summaries by LPCI and SGI.

Rangeland Ecology & Management, Vol, 70. Issue 1

Woody invasion of western rangelands: Using grouse as focal species for ecosystem restoration

Click the research article titles to read the open-access papers.

Introduction and Summary

Special Issue: Targeted Woodland Removal to Recover At-Risk Grouse and Their Sagebrush-Steppe and Prairie Ecosystems by Richard F. Miller, David E. Naugle, Jeremy D. Maestas, Christian A. Hagen, Galon Hall

Woodland Expansion Threat

A Hierarchical Perspective to Woody Plant Encroachment for Conservation of Prairie-Chickens by Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, Torre J. Hovick, R. Dwayne Elmore, Ashley M. Tanner, David M. Engle, Craig A. Davis

Mapping Tree Canopy Cover in Support of Proactive Prairie Grouse Conservation in Western North America by Michael J. Falkowski, Jeffrey S. Evans, David E. Naugle, Christian A. Hagen, Scott A. Carleton, Jeremy D. Maestas, Azad Henareh Khalyani, Aaron J. Poznanovic, Andrew J. Lawrence. Stay tuned for LPCI’s Science to Solutions summary! 

Lesser Prairie Chicken Response

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Avoidance of Trees in a Grassland Landscape by Joseph M. Lautenbach, Reid T. Plumb, Samantha G. Robinson, Christian A. Hagen, David A. Haukos, James C. Pitman. Read LPCI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research!

Impacts of Mesquite Distribution on Seasonal Space Use of Lesser Prairie-Chickens by Matthew A. Boggie, Cody R. Strong, Daniel Lusk, Scott A. Carleton, William R. Gould, Randy L. Howard, Clay Nichols, Michael Falkowski, Christian Hagen. Read LPCI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research!  

Sage Grouse Response

Pinyon and Juniper Encroachment into Sagebrush Ecosystems Impacts Distribution and Survival of Greater Sage-Grouse by Peter S. Coates, Brian G. Prochazka, Mark A. Ricca, K. Ben Gustafson, Pilar Ziegler, Michael L. Casazza

Encounters with Pinyon-Juniper Influence Riskier Movements in Greater Sage-Grouse Across the Great Basin by Brian G. Prochazka, Peter S. Coates, Mark A. Ricca, Michael L. Casazza, K. Benjamin Gustafson, Josh M. Hull

Short-Term Response of Sage-Grouse Nesting to Conifer Removal in the Northern Great Basin by John P. Severson, Christian A. Hagen, Jeremy D. Maestas, David E. Naugle, J. Todd Forbes, Kerry P. Reese. Read SGI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research

Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Selection Drives Reproductive Fitness Under a Conifer Removal Strategy by Charles P. Sandford, Michel T. Kohl, Terry A. Messmer, David K. Dahlgren, Avery Cook, Brian R. Wing

Vegetation Response

Sage Grouse Groceries: Forb Response to Piñon-Juniper Treatments by Jonathan D. Bates, Kirk W. Davies, April Hulet, Richard F. Miller, Bruce Roundy

Ecosystem Water Availability  

Ecosystem Water Availability in Juniper versus Sagebrush Snow-Dominated Rangelands by Patrick R. Kormos, Danny Marks, Frederick B. Pierson, C. Jason Williams, Stuart P. Hardegree, Scott Havens, Andrew Hedrick, Jonathan D. Bates, Tony J. Svejcar. Read SGI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research

Human Dimensions and Restoration Paradigms

Conserving the Greater Sage-Grouse: A Social-Ecological Systems Case Study from the California-Nevada Region by Alison L. Duvall, Alexander L. Metcalf, Peter S. Coates

The Sage-Grouse Habitat Mortgage: Effective Conifer Management in Space and Time by Chad S. Boyd, Jay D. Kerby, Tony J. Svejcar, Jon D. Bates, Dustin D. Johnson, Kirk W. Davies

Sagebrush Songbirds Response  

Bird Responses to Removal of Western Juniper in Sagebrush-Steppe by Aaron L. Holmes, Jeremy D. Maestas, David E. Naugle

Extending Conifer Removal and Landscape Protection Strategies from Sage-Grouse to Songbirds, a Range-Wide Assessment by J. Patrick Donnelly, Jason D. Tack, Kevin E. Doherty, David E. Naugle, Brady W. Allred, Victoria J. Dreitz. Read SGI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research!


Science to Solutions: Mesquite Encroachment Impacts Lesser Prairie-Chickens

While scientists have long suspected that honey mesquite encroachment is a significant problem for lesser prairie-chickens in the southern portion of their range, a new study is the first to quantify its impact.

A new “Science to Solutions” report from the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) – a partnership led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – summarizes the study’s findings and management implications.

The study shows that lesser prairie-chickens strongly prefer sites with less than 1% mesquite canopy cover and rarely use habitat where cover exceeds 15%. This intense aversion is likely due to the fact that mesquite provides hiding and perching cover for predators.

Read the Science to Solutions report, “Mesquite Removal Restores Habitat for Lesser Prairie-Chickens.”

LPCI’s mesquite report is part of the NRCS Science to Solutions series, which distills the findings of emerging scientific research and identifies ways this new knowledge can help fine-tune habitat range management. It contributes to a growing body of science demonstrating the impacts of woodland expansion on native wildlife in the West.

Lesser prairie-chickens rarely use habitat where mesquite canopy cover exceeds 15%. (Photo: Charles Dixon)

NRCS uses science to target the best places and ways to work with ranchers to remove woody species and improve the health of native habitat. Since 2010, ranchers have made wildlife-friendly improvements to more than 6 million acres in the West, benefiting sage grouse and prairie chicken while improving livestock forage on privately owned working lands.

The study appears with 14 others in the latest edition of Rangeland Ecology & Management, the scientific journal of the Society for Range Management (SRM).

This special issue—which highlights cutting-edge research on the effects of woodland expansion on at-risk grouse species—is also the focus of an upcoming symposium during the SRM annual conference at the end of this month. The full-day symposium on January 31 will feature 20 presentations on the latest findings woodland expansion. The presentations will be live-streamed and free to watch on SGI’s website. (View the schedule of talks.)

Within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, predatory birds are more abundant in prairie grasslands with mesquite cover than in open grasslands.