Category Archives: LPCI Press Releases

Rancher Weathers Drought with LPCI Conservation Assistance

by Sandra Murphy, LPCI communications specialist

On a late April morning in southwest Kansas, sand bluestem sways over rancher Bill Barby’s head. A medley of other native grasses — little bluestem, sand lovegrass, and prairie sandreed, and more — fill the pasture around him, providing food for his cattle as well as habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, a threatened species.

Bill Barby stands in a field he had burned a year ago, overlooking a neighboring pasture where his cattle graze.

Bill Barby stands in a field he had burned a year ago, overlooking a neighboring pasture where his cattle graze.

Despite the abundance of grass these days, Barby can easily recall the devastating drought that recently gripped the Southern Great Plains and brought forage production to a standstill.

“In 2011, I lost most of my sand lovegrass and some of my little bluestem,” he said. “It was a shock to have that die.”

During the worst two years of the drought, 2011 and 2012, temperatures soared to record highs. Rainfall plummeted — in some areas to the lowest levels in more than a century. Record numbers of wildfires burned, crops and pastures withered, streams ran dry, wildlife populations dwindled, trees died, and dust storms darkened the sky.

It was a tough couple of years to be a prairie grass, let alone a prairie-chicken,” said Christian Hagen, science adviser for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). The partnership, led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, leverages Farm Bill funds to help ranchers and farmers voluntarily enhance lesser prairie-chicken habitat while improving the long-term sustainability of their agricultural operations.

LPCI field staff work one-on-one with ranchers to develop a grazing plan that supports thier cattle operation as well as providing habitat for wildlife like prairie-chicken. The plan identifies strategies to build grassland health and resiliency so that the vegetation is better able to survive drought, and it lays out a course of action to follow when a drought occurs.

When Barby acquired this 4,000-acre ranch in 2007, he enrolled in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) right away. Through EQIP, he received technical and financial assistance to develop a conservation plan and put into place a grazing system that allowed portions of the range to rest during the growing season.

By following his conservation plan, Barby had good grass health going into the drought. As the hot, dry weather intensified, he followed the drought contingency strategies outlined in his plan, including removing cattle from the range.

Bill Barby, right, talks with LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen about his range management practices.

Bill Barby, right, talks with LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen about his range management practices.

“We’ve met many ranchers who’ve told us that their conservation plans have helped them maintain their herds and their business in the face of drought,” Hagen said, “By restoring native grasses and investing in conservation, their ranches have become more resilient in the face of extreme weather.”

Barby is currently enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), through which he continues to refine his operation and maintain habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken and other grassland wildlife.

For Hagen, that commitment to long-term sustainability for both ranch operations and rangeland is critical for lesser prairie-chickens.

“When landowners like Bill use LPCI assistance to plan for habitat resiliency through the next drought, it makes all the difference for the prairie-chicken, which depends on healthy prairie through thick and thin,” he says.

As Barby looks out over the pasture where his cattle are grazing, he emphasizes the importance of federal conservation programs in helping him meet his ranching goals.

“I couldn’t be anywhere near as close to getting my ranch in shape if I didn’t have these programs,” he says. “The things I do for conservation are things I want to do for my ranch anyway, so for me they go hand in hand.”

Running his hand over a stalk of sand bluestem, he adds: “I’m not afraid of drought after seeing I can manage through it. When the next one comes, I’ll have confidence to deal with it.”

LPCI is one of several NRCS landscape conservation initiatives working to enhance habitat for at-risk species while maintaining a vibrant agricultural sector. Producers are working with NRCS to also restore and protect habitat for sage grouse and southwestern willow flycatcher while making their lands more resilient to drought.

Photo of lesser prairie-chicken. Laura Erickson

Industry Funds Fuel Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation Partnership

LAS VEGAS, NV – At its winter meeting in Las Vegas, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) announced plans to allocate $445,000 to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative partnership to expand habitat conservation efforts for the federally listed lesser prairie-chicken.

Photo of lesser prairie-chicken. Laura Erickson

Lesser prairie-chicken (Laura Erickson photo)

Once abundant across the Southern Great Plains, lesser prairie-chicken populations have declined sharply, largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May, 2014.

Launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) offers financial and technical support to ranchers and farmers who voluntarily enhance lesser prairie-chicken habitat on their agricultural lands.

Critical to that conservation effort are the LPCI-funded field staff who work one-on-one with landowners to provide conservation planning, technical support, and habitat monitoring on enrolled lands. NRCS partners with several organizations and agencies to fund these field positions, collectively known as the Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT).

WAFWA has committed $222,500 a year over the next two years to the SWAT program. The Initiative will utilize the funding to hire new field staff in critical habitat regions of the five states that comprise the lesser prairie-chicken’s range—Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

SWAT field staff will, in turn, expand their services to deliver conservation planning and monitoring for both WAFWA and NRCS conservation programs that benefit lesser prairie-chickens.

According to Jon Ungerer, LPCI Coordinator, WAFWA’s funding will greatly strengthen the LPCI partnership. “Currently, LPCI and WAFWA offer closely aligned conservation programs and assistance. This partnership combines rangeland expertise of NRCS with wildlife expertise of the five-state fish and wildlife agencies.”

He continues, “With this funding, we can provide one-stop shopping for landowners and streamline services by merging technical assistance for WAFWA and NRCS programs aimed at conserving lesser prairie-chicken habitat.”

WAFWA’s funding stems from a mitigation program established through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan (RWP), which WAFWA oversees. Industries with developments within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range pay a mitigation fee to provide habitat conservation for the chicken.

To date, industry enrollment and mitigation fees have amounted to more than $37 million, which WAFWA has placed in an endowment to support habitat conservation measures on private lands in the lesser prairie-chicken’s range.

Ross Melinchuk, Chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Council, describes the win-win nature of their financial commitment, “Our expanded partnership with NRCS through the SWAT program magnifies our ability to deliver lesser prairie-chicken conservation to private landowners in a timely and cost-effective manner.”

The RWP offers agricultural landowners and operators financial assistance for a number of voluntary management options, ranging from habitat improvement practices to conservation easements.

With the 2014 listing of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, many landowners have expressed concern about how ESA regulations might affect their agricultural operations.

Ungerer explains, “This partnership provides landowners with the planning assistance they need to receive Endangered Species Act protections when implementing their conservation plans, and the ability to utilize their plan whether they choose to enroll in an NRCS or WAFWA financial assistance program or not.”

Photo of lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background, photo credit: Laura Erickson

Lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background. Laura Erickson photo.


Sandra Murphy, Communications Specialist
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative
928-380-9489 (cell)