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.