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Research Says, Adjusting Grazing Practices Can Improve Prairie-Chicken Habitat

When it comes to creating the diverse grassland structure that lesser prairie-chickens need, prescribed burning–and particularly patch-burn grazing–is a go-to, cost-efficient management strategy. But weather conditions in the semi-arid southern Great Plains can stand in the way of implementing prescribed fire plans. That’s why range managers need a variety of conservation practices in their toolbox to create and maintain the mosaic of grassland habitat that lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife species depend on.

A new study by researchers at Kansas State University identifies specific grazing practices—targeted forage utilization goals, decreased stocking density, and larger pastures—that create the varied grassland habitat structure that lesser prairie-chickens need. The latest Science to Solutions report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative describes the research and what it means for on-the-ground management strategies.

Read the Science to Solutions report, “Grazing Practices Foster Diverse Grassland Habitat.”

What the Study Found

Past research has shown that intensive grazing management (standardized forage utilization goals, smaller pastures, and short-duration grazing periods) can harm grassland ecosystem function, and that producers can increase grassland structural diversity by properly adjusting forage utilization goals, decreasing stocking density, and increasing pasture pasture size.

The recently released study, led by John Kraft, is the first to assess whether these structural diversity-producing grazing strategies have a significant effect on lesser prairie-chicken habitat selection.

The new research shows that  non-breeding lesser prairie-chickens preferred grasslands with 35-45% forage utilization and that use steadily declined when forage utilization topped 50%. Breeding females placed all nests in pastures with less than 40% forage utilization, and the greatest number of nests were placed on sites with forage utilization between 0 and 20%. As grazing pressure increased, daily nest survival fell.

Using computer modeling, researchers then investigated how lesser prairie-chickens utilize grasslands managed with grazing strategies known to increase structural diversity. They found that, regardless of the forage utilization value, lesser prairie-chicken habitat use increased significantly with lower stocking densities, and that larger pasture size increased habitat use. Their findings have important implications for range management within the lesser prairie-chicken’s active range in the southern Great Plains.

What it Means for Range Management

Female prairie-chickens nest in habitat with tall, dense vegetation, then move their broods to habitat with more insect-rich forbs and more bare ground, which allows for greater mobility for chicks. When range management does not create adequate grassland structural variety to meet changing seasonal needs, lesser prairie-chicken populations decline. (Photo: David Haukos)

Stocking density is a crucial indicator for maintaining or improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Many ranchers have adopted intensive grazing management practices in which pastures are subdivided into smaller paddocks. This increases stocking density and reduces the quality of the resulting habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. Range managers can reduce stocking density by selectively removing cross fencing to make pasture areas bigger, shifting toward a continuous grazing system. While there is much debate on the merits of rotational and continuous grazing systems, the superiority of one system over another in terms of livestock production and ecosystem health is not widely accepted among professionals.

In rangelands that already have the diverse vegetative structure that lesser prairie-chickens require, range managers can maintain large-scale (i.e., across pastures) heterogeneity through a mix of low-to-moderate forage utilization goals between pastures. Small-scale heterogeneity (i.e., within pasture) can be maintained by implementing low stocking densities, greater pasture areas, and shorter deferment periods.

In rangelands where vegetative structure suitable for nesting is limited, or where the most important grass species for nesting are also among the most palatable, longer deferment and rest-rotation may be needed to restore or create advantageous vegetative structure. Further, periodic, year-long deferment is likely essential to maintain the integrity of grazed lands regardless of plant community composition.

The Science to Solutions report identifies specific management practices to improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat–Read them on page 4 of the report.

The bottom line? While the combined effects of prescribed fire and grazing (patch-burn grazing) offer an exceptional tool for optimizing lesser prairie-chicken habitat and livestock production, a particular assemblage of vegetative diversity-promoting grazing practices can help maintain and improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat when range conditions preclude the use of fire.

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.

Putting Conservation Easements to Work for Ranchers and Wildlife

When ranchers in the southern Great Plains take part in conservation assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), that assistance most often takes the form of time-limited conservation agreements, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These 3-5 year contracts have proven tremendously valuable in restoring habitat for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife.

They have their limitations though. In a best-case scenario, a landowner finds that the conservation practices they put in place through the short-term conservation agreement greatly benefit his or her ranch operation and bottom line, so that when the contract ends they continue the wildlife-friendly practices. But in reality, once the contract expires, economic issues or myriad other factors can prompt a significant change in land use.

Conservation easements are another voluntary practice in LPCI’s conservation toolbox that can provide long-term benefit to both landowners and wildlife. What is a conservation easement?
It’s a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization, like a land trust, which places some long-term restrictions on the use of a property in order to protect its natural values and maintain it as a working land.

Subdivisions fragment habitat and working ranchlands.

According to Lisa McCauley, NRCS easement specialist in Montana, ranching easements usually focus on limiting subdivision development. The purchase price of the easement is based on the appraised value of the development rights being sold.  Landowners also have the option to donate a portion of the value of their easement and receive significant tax benefits. (Read the full interview with McCauley on the Sage Grouse Initiative website.)

Conservation easements are a commonly used tool for ranchers in Montana. “This year, we’re going to end up with close to 40 applications for enrollment in the NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program [ACEP]—the most ever from our state,” McCauley said.

McCauley attributes Montana’s success in helping landowners conserve the range through conservation easements to the land trusts who hold almost all of the easements NRCS invests in.

“These local partners are dedicated to putting conservation on the ground, and their hard work has paid off. NRCS is so lucky to be able to partner with Montana’s land trusts, and would not be successful without them,” McCauley said.

These easements have direct benefits for greater sage grouse, the focal species for the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). Like LPCI, SGI is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Through SGI, NRCS has invested nearly $42 million since 2010 to place conservation easements on 191,200 acres of sage grouse habitat in Montana alone.

Though conservation easements are much less a part of the ranching culture in the southern Great Plains, they have every bit as much potential to benefit ranchers and wildlife as in sage grouse country.

A conservation easement ensures that this 29,718-acre working ranch in western Kansas will retain intact prairie habitat, benefitting both rancher and wildlife. Photo courtesy Jim Pitman, WAFWA.

In addition to the NRCS ACEP program, ranchers in the lesser prairie-chicken’s five-state range can pursue a conservation easement through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). During the past year, three parcels of ranchland in lesser prairie-chicken habitat, totaling 33,053 acres, have been permanently protected through WAFWA’s Perpetual Conservation Agreement program.

Jim Pitman, WAFWA’s Conservation Delivery Director, stresses that the terms in a conservation easement are negotiable and the land trusts can tailor the language to align with the landowner’s desires. “Conservation easements do not restrict a landowner’s ability to control access, make management decisions, or recreate on their property,” Pitman said. Instead, they help ensure that the conservation values of a working ranch—like wildlife habitat, native vegetation, scenic views—will be maintained in perpetuity.”

How to Learn More

Ranchers in the southern Great Plains interested in learning more about conservation easements through either NRCS or WAFWA should contact their local USDA Service Center.

Thursday, May 18, at 12:00pm Central Time, the Texas Wildlife Association will host a free webinar, “Agricultural Conservation Easements: A Valuable Landowner Tool,” presented by Ken Cearley – Stewardship Director for the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. Learn how you can tune in.

Launched in 2010, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.



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.

New Role Coordinates LPCI’s Field Capacity, Deepens Partnerships

Since 2012, Jordan Menge has worked with landowners in the Texas Panhandle to help restore habitat for lesser prairie-chickens, as part of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT). Now he has taken on a new role, as the SWAT Capacity Coordinator, overseeing SWAT field staff across the five-state LPCI action area.

Jordan Menge, LPCI’s SWAT Capacity Coordinator

Through LPCI, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) teams up with partner agencies and organizations to expand the field delivery, science, and communications capacity for lesser prairie-chicken conservation. Pooling resources, partner organizations fund SWAT range conservationists and wildlife biologists based in field offices in critical habitat areas in the Southern Plains states.

SWAT field staffers work with landowners who chose to participate in voluntary range conservation programs funded through the federal Farm Bill and through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan.

Under contract with LPCI partner organization Pheasants Forever, Menge will help build LPCI’s SWAT program, aiming to have five SWAT field staffers in place by the end of 2017—one in each of the five states that are home to lesser prairie-chickens.

“Over time—hopefully in the next year or two—we can expand the SWAT program to 10 people,” Menge said.

Menge will work with NRCS and WAFWA biologists to train field staff. “New science is constantly informing conservation practices.” Menge said.  “Training SWAT staff to incorporate the latest research findings related to lesser prairie-chicken ecology helps ensure that conservation dollars deliver the greatest return on investment.”

His role will help coordinate conservation efforts among partner organizations. “We’ll be pretty involved with WAFWA, carrying out vegetation monitoring and conservation planning.”

“I hope we can bring better communications through our partners to implement positive conservation on the ground for producers and for chickens,” Menge said.

Great to have you in your new role, Jordan!


New Flyer Links Range Health and Productivity, LPCI Assistance

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-9-25-34-amHealthy range is productive range. That’s the simple message in our latest outreach flyer for private landowners in the southern Great Plains. When landowners adopt habitat conservation practices that benefit lesser prairie-chickens, the land responds in ways that benefit wildlife and ranch operations. And through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, there’s both technical and financial assistance available to make that happen.

View the flyer

The flyer describes five core conservation practices supported by LPCI that improve the range for both screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-9-25-51-amwildlife and cattle: Prescribed grazing, drought contingency planning, conversion of expired
Conservation Reserve Program acreage to grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire.

Getting that message to landowners in the LPCI action area is critical. Take a look at the flyer, and share it!






Passion for Wild Things–A Poet’s Perspective on WLFW Conservation

Ranch manager Martin Moore (right) proudly shows the redcedar removal work he has done on the Moore Ranch to NRCS District Conservationist Paul Clark

Ranch manager Martin Moore (right) and NRCS District Conservationist Paul Clark savor the view of redcedar removal work on the Moore ranch in Oklahoma.

There’s a lot of science and strategy behind what the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative does within the NRCS Working Lands For Wildlife partnership. But those efforts are fueled and made successful by the love and caring that landowners and the resource managers who work with them feel for the land. A poem by  Ritch Nelson, NRCS Nebraska State Wildlife Biologist beautifully captures this conservation spirit.

Wild Things 

A wise man named Aldo, once wrote of ‘wild things’
The chance to find a pasque flower; chart when a bird sings.

The delight these things offer to enrich our lives.
The harmony of nature for which man strives.

He joined up with Bennet on Wisconsin’s small farms,
For good soil and water, to keep critters from harm.

T’was back in the thirties but the concept lives on.
Conserve the resource before it is gone.

Degraded landscapes are taking a toll.
Private landowners play a critical role.

Much wildlife lives on our working lands.
We can save these key species if we all lend a hand.

The chickens that range ‘cross the southern High Plains;
Where ranchers and partners are taking great pains,

To restore the grassland and supply more fodder.
Nest success up; prescribed fires burn hotter.

While in the southeast, down under the pines,
Plans for the tortoise are making headlines.

For they offer many a critter a home,
In burrows dug deep in the sandy loam.

The outlook now better for a small, lowly toad.
When we partner together and take a new road.

Out west in the spring a large bird is booming,
And meanwhile threats to its life-blood are looming.

But livestock and grouse can be on the same page;
Persist side by side in a vast sea of sage.

Throughout Appalachia, a warbler calls out –
Counted in data, the biologists tout.

In southwest Montana a new day now dawns;
Streams clear and free-flowing where the grayling will spawn.

The bunny fares better with succession set back;
With the woodcock and ruffed grouse also on track.

The Oregon chub, a small fish – delisted;
Thriving in floodplains with oxbows so twisted.

Big rivers that flow through the land of the bear,
Support wooded swamps on lands we now share.

And with each new cub, the black bear secures
A more solid footing, their future endures.

All that is done, the efforts we take,
Is for the whole sum, not just for the sake,

Of one target species but rather the web;
The cogs on a wheel, as time flows and ebbs.

There’ll always be more ‘wild things’ to conserve;
To be more proactive and not just observe.

Rural communities of neighbors and friends,
Are much more complex for they do extend,

To soil and water, plants, animals, air –
The whole ecosystem for which we care.

For shouldn’t we love, admire and respect?
To build a land ethic to help us connect,
The humans to resources, we dare not neglect.

Pulling together, we now take a stand
To follow our calling, helping people help the land!

New Magazine Highlights Conservation Successes on Working Lands, Including LPCI

From ranchers in the West to forest managers in the East, private landowners are voluntarily conserving habitat for wildlife, helping species rebound and recover. These successes—including the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s work conserving grassland habitat in the southern Great Plains—are the focus of the new Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) magazine.

Read the magazine.WLFWmagazine

WLFW is a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnership initiative that targets species whose decline can be reversed and benefits other species with similar habitat needs. Species include the lesser prairie-chickenNew England cottontailSouthwestern willow flycatchergreater sage-grousegopher tortoisebog turtle and golden-winged warbler.

Private lands are essential for providing habitat for nearly two-thirds of all species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Through WLFW, NRCS works with conservation partners and private landowners to restore populations of declining wildlife species, provide regulatory certainty and strengthen and sustain rural economies. The nation’s landowners—farmers, ranchers and forest managers—provide not only food and fiber for the world but also include a variety of environmental benefits, including habitat for wildlife.

WLFW uses a voluntary, innovative approach to benefit high-priority habitat for seven species of wildlife that are declining, candidates for listing or listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  WLFW works with agricultural producers to create and improve wildlife habitat with regulatory predictability from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.



Conservation Reserve Program accepting more acreage for LPC habitat

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced increases in the acreage of agricultural lands eligible for funding through one of its wildlife habitat restoration programs. The program, known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) is an initiative within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

LPCI wildlife biologist Megan Waechter studies CRP grassland.

LPCI wildlife biologist Megan Waechter studies CRP grassland.

The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers CRP and its SAFE program, and NRCS provides technical support to enrolled landowners. The Texas FSA office announced a 27,300-acre increase, and Kansas FSA announced a 55,000-acre increase (click links to read state funding announcements).

If you are a farmer or rancher in the five-state lesser prairie-chicken range, contact your local USDA/FSA office to determine whether you are located in a designated SAFE-eligible area.

CRP uses Farm Bill funding to provide annual rental payments to agricultural landowners to establish grassland cover on sensitive agricultural lands to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and establish wildlife habitat. The State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program is a subset of CRP specifically targeted to significant natural resource landscapes and associated benefits, including threatened species like the lesser prairie-chicken. SAFE offers incentive payments for new enrollments, annual acreage rental payments, and cost-share funding.