Conservation Reserve Program Benefits Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Lesser prairie-chickens have established a lek (courtship and breeding ground) on this CRP field in Oklahoma, which is being grazed as a part of mid-contract management. Photo: Dwayne Elmore.


New Report Details How the CRP Program Provides Critical Habitat for LEPCs


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A new Wildlife Conservation Insight Series Report from the USDA’s’ Conservation Effects Assessment Project discusses a new study from Oklahoma State University that shows how lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) benefit Lesser Prairie-Chickens (LEPCs).

Background

Human-driven land cover change over the past two centuries has transformed previously extensive grasslands in the Great Plains into a mosaic of croplands, woodlands, industrial infrastructure, and remnant grasslands. These changes have resulted in North American grasslands being considered some of the most altered and threatened ecosystems in the world. As a result of this fragmentation of the landscape, the lesser prairie-chicken (LEPC) has experienced population declines of greater than 90% from its historic abundance.

Lesser prairie-chicken in Oklahoma. Photo: Ashley Tanner.

 

Conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) address multiple resource concerns (e.g., soil erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitat) on private lands. The enrollment of land in CRP in recent decades has significantly altered land cover patterns throughout the Great Plains (Tanner and Fuhlendorf 2018), providing benefits to wildlife and other ecosystem services (Hagen et al. 2016, Sullins et al. 2019).

More than 4.9 million acres are enrolled in CRP on over 43,000 individual properties within the current range of the LEPC.

Key Findings From the Report

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation are primary factors in lesser prairie-chicken (LEPC)

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    population declines.

  • Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides large areas of grasslands and grassland connectivity that directly influence habitat suitability for and space use by LEPCs.
  • At the county scale, the presence of CRP appears to highly influence habitat suitability and roost-site selection for LEPCs.
  • At the pasture scale, managed grazing of CRP land does not negatively influence LEPC movement or habitat selection.
  • Consideration of spatial arrangement and proximity to CRP patches can lead to maximum habitat benefits for LEPC, given that individual birds rarely traveled more than 0.3 miles to or from roost sites.
  • A patchwork mixture of CRP, native range, and cropland areas may best provide for the needs of LEPC.

Conservation Implications

CRP provides benefits to both grassland species and producers throughout the Great Plains by promoting grassland connectivity, reducing soil erosion, providing forage during managed grazing practices, and providing critical habitat for grassland wildlife. The benefits of CRP cover combined with healthier rangeland conditions coming from practices recommended in the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative are helping to sustain and improve LEPC populations in the Great Plains.

This study shows that the presence of CRP cover interspersed with other diverse cover types (native range and cropland) is an important component in meeting the habitat needs of LEPC. At both the local and distribution-wide scales, the LEPC conservation framework used by planners in the future must be based on a good understanding of the temporal and spatial dynamics of LEPCs on CRP lands.

Finally, managed grazing within CRP areas appears to be compatible with LEPC ecology, and other mid-contract management practices (e.g., haying) should be further evaluated for compatibility.


Download and read the CEAP report for additional details on the OSU study and its implications for LEPC management.