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Saving the Lesser Prairie Chicken: What Landowners Should Know

April 24, 2014
Lesser Prairie Chicken KState
The listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species will have various impacts on farmers and ranchers in the Central Plains.  
 
 

The recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement, listing the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, brings to mind how agricultural producers, livestock ranchers and those with land enrolled in CRP could be affected.
By: Katie Allen, K-State Research & Extension News

Cumulative habitat loss, encroachment by invasive woody plants, wind energy development, petroleum production and the ongoing drought are just a handful of reasons why there are fewer lesser prairie chickens in the wild today, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which recently announced the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

K-State Research and Extension wildlife specialist Charlie Lee said the designation of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species has been anticipated for some time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement in late March will go into effect the first full week in May, following a 30-day public comment period.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that last year, the range-wide population of the lesser prairie chicken declined to a record low of 17,616 birds, an almost 50 percent reduction from the 2012 population estimate. The five states included in that range—Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado—have a conservation plan in place with a population goal of 67,000 birds range-wide for a 10-year average.

"That doesn’t mean that we have to go from the current estimate of about 17,000 birds up to 67,000 one year, and then having once exceeded the goal, change the status again," Lee said. "It means having 67,000 birds consistently for a 10-year timeframe."

Lee said the listing might pose a challenge for some landowners, particularly in western Kansas, where the lesser prairie chicken lives. Significant habitat changes must occur to meet the 67,000-bird decade goal, and those changes will most likely have to come from livestock ranchers and grazers implementing conservation practices that benefit lesser prairie chickens. More normal rainfall patterns would also be beneficial.

Most crop producers will not be affected by the listing, he said, because the section 4(d) rule of the Endangered Species Act exempts most routine farming activity to protect the lesser prairie chicken, including agricultural practices on cultivated lands that are in crop production, as well as maintenance of infrastructure on these operations.

"However, they decided as part of the rule that properly managed grazing is important for lesser prairie chickens, and improperly managed grazing can impact them in a negative manner," Lee said. "Haying of native grass might not be allowed. It’s not specified, but I think it could probably be implied, that a grazing plan could be required."

Lee said he anticipates ranchers will face more changes for grazing, including possibly allowing only a certain number of livestock on a particular piece of rangeland and limiting the length of time they are allowed to graze, for the numbers of lesser prairie chickens to increase. It is speculation right now if producers will be required to have a grazing management plan in place, but Lee said that is how he interprets it if ranchers want the protection afforded by the 4(d) rule.

"The way I read the rule, the ranchers might be more affected than crop producers in this particular situation," Lee said. "When you look at it, the lesser prairie chicken uses cropland for a minor amount of food certain times of the year. Rangeland is the primary habitat, and that is where most changes are going to have to take place."

The listing also means no hunting season for the lesser prairie chicken, he said. Kansas has been the only state to allow hunting for the lesser prairie chicken in recent years.

Information about CRP
How about the landowners who have acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)? Rod Winkler, program specialist for CRP, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Kansas, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with the FSA to ensure implementation of all aspects of CRP has an overall positive impact on habitat for the lesser prairie chicken.

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