For Manuel De Leon, acting coordinator of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), working one-on-one with landowners is both the highlight of his job and the key to making a real difference for lesser prairie-chickens. A Lubbock-area native, Manuel has worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Texas Panhandle since 2002. As LPCI’s acting coordinator, he’s overseeing the effort to conserve habitat for lesser prairie-chickens across their five-state range.
Manuel came to this career by a circuitous route. Following in his older brother’s footsteps, he began college as a business major. During his sophomore year, he discovered a listing in the course catalog that changed his life. “I saw this thing called ‘wildlife management’—I never knew that was a major!” Manuel changed his major and was hooked.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in wildlife management, he pursued a master’s degree in wildlife science, spending two field seasons studying shorebird habitat use and behavior in North Dakota prairie potholes. A decade of work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed, taking him to such beautiful sites as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
By the early 2000s, Manuel was ready to return home to northern Texas. He began his career with NRCS as a soil conservationist in Muleshoe in 2002, in the heart of Texas lesser prairie-chicken country. Ever since then, he has provided wildlife-based technical assistance to landowners interested in improving wildlife habitat on their ranchlands.
A central part of his job, Manuel says, is to discuss the range of management options with landowners. “Even if we have an inkling that the landowner has their mind made up to plant row crops, it’s important that we provide alternatives,” Manuel says.
“If the land has potential as [lesser prairie] chicken habitat, we might suggest letting the grass grow for a year or two, running a prescribed fire, and creating a prescribed grazing plan. Then we can reach into the financial toolbox for programs that can help them offset the cost of practices that are going to be beneficial to the land and to everybody. We all live downstream, as the saying goes.”
As acting coordinator for LPCI, Manuel is working with LPCI partners to fine-tune LPCI’s conservation delivery. In that process, he sees landowners as the most important partner of all. With 95% of lesser prairie-chicken habitat on private land, landowners hold the key to conservation success. “They need to put food on the table and make a living. We need to work with them with flexibility in order to make conservation happen.”
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.