Lesser prairie-chicken's fate no simple matter
By Kathleen W. Ward
K-State Research and Extension
Kansas is in an awkward position.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether to propose listing the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened or endangered species. The bird's range and numbers have been declining for years--everywhere except Kansas.
The western part of the state is now home to at least half of the world's lesser prairie-chicken population. The other half lives in nearby areas of Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
Together, the remaining birds are on less than 8 percent of their historic range. And, more than 90 percent of that current habitat is private property.
So, how landowners manage those 100 million-plus acres will ultimately determine the lesser prairie-chicken's future, said Charlie Lee, K-State Research and Extension wildlife specialist.
The FWS decision could have a wide-ranging impact.
(Lee's comprehensive new website on lesser prairie-chicken issues and management is at www.ksre.ksu.edu/lpc.)
"The volunteer cooperation we've had from Kansas landowners should serve as an example for the other states to follow," said Jim Pitman, small-game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
But the outcome may not be that simple.
State agencies fight back
The FWS raised the lesser prairie-chicken's candidate status in 2008, making it a high priority. Since then, the wildlife agencies in the five habitat states have been working together, trying to head off the perceived need for an FWS listing.
A listing would be "extremely detrimental to our conservation efforts," Pitman explained.
The states' efforts to preserve and improve habitat have earned the support of landowners, elected policymakers, USDA agencies and energy-production interests. Advocates include the entire Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, as well as such environmental groups as The Nature Conservancy and Pheasants Forever.
These state-interest sharers were encouraged in June 2012. The FWS opted to drop the listing process for the dunes sagebrush (i.e., prairie) lizard, because 70 percent of its range was already enrolled in voluntary conservation plans.
However, the FWS outlook for the lesser prairie-chicken may include additional factors. Severe drought and Capitol Hill budget cutters both are creating new uncertainties.
Of course, an FWS proposal isn't the end of the listing process. That can take a year. It must include 60 days for public comment, with at least one public hearing in the species' territory. This typically sparks heated debate. Habitat states can continue to submit alternate analyses and ideas for a while. (Kansas is working on a plan to submit next spring.)
Ironically, arguments about the lesser prairie-chicken itself would be unlikely. The little game bird is definitely no insignificant fish, coffin beetle or big-eared bat.
The bird people value
Ecologists list the lesser prairie-chicken as a sentinel species--one whose very presence is a sign of prairie health.
Plains dwellers tend to view it as a prairie icon, with deep roots in the region's history. Bird watchers worldwide are willing to pay for a chance to see the chicken's quirky, near-dawn mating rituals.
The only problem is: Lesser prairie-chickens may gather each spring at a particular breeding ground or lek. But they need to disperse and range across tens of thousands of acres through the other seasons. The Audubon Society estimates each mating group's combined spring-to-spring habitat needs at 18.75 to 31.25 square miles.
The birds are true denizens of the prairies--which is why humans have so effectively fragmented their habitat. Lesser prairie-chickens stay far away from anything that could conceal or serve as a perch for predators.
Even 3-feet-tall redcedar trees make the birds nervous. A wind turbine merits a no-chicken circle of about 2,000 acres.
Lesser prairie-chickens are savvy enough to escape from well-planned, prescribed pasture burns--one of the best ways to control invasive trees.
But wildfires are a difference challenge, and Plains weather extremes can periodically cut a swath through all ground-feeding, native birds, including turkeys, pheasants and quails. Severe drought, in particular, can cause prairie-chicken losses that seem appalling.
"This spring, Kansas chicken numbers were down about 50 percent. That's not uncommon in a gallinaceous (ground-based) species, even in very good habitat," said small-game coordinator Pitman.
His experience suggests that when the drought eases, the birds should return--if their habitat is still there.
Can states still be in charge?
USDA's Conservation Reserve Program has been a major factor in Kansas' success with lesser prairie-chickens, Pitman added. The CRP has been part of the five-year farm bills passed since the mid 1980s.
"Fifteen years ago, we didn't know the lesser prairie-chicken existed north of the Arkansas River," he said. "Now, more than half of its range is there, west of U.S. 281. We've even got a few chickens north of (Interstate Highway) I-70."
But, the 2008 farm bill will expire Sept. 30. The CRP contracts for millions of U.S. acres will expire in September, too.
Capitol Hill debate on the 2012 farm bill stalled before Congress recessed this summer. One of the unresolved differences between House and Senate was how deeply and how quickly to cut the CRP program further. (The CRP's acreage cap peaked 10 years ago.)
Any short-term extension of the 2008 farm bill won't create much certainty.
A decline has already started in the number of farmers trying to renew their 10- or 15-year CRP "rental" contracts. (It's a competitive process, administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency, using an index of environmental benefits.) In fact, high grain prices have taken some marginal, highly erodible cropland back into production.
On a more positive note: Until recently, many experts believed lesser prairie-chickens required native grasslands. But, the diverse grasses Kansans planted on CRP lands showed improved pastures could benefit the little birds, as well as cattle. For ranchers, providing quality, sustainable habitat could be a "win-win situation," said Jon Ungerer.
Ungerer coordinates the five-state Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, introduced in 2010 by USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service. He works with state agency biologists to provide landowners with on-site, technical help.
Ungerer views the CRP as vital to the initiative's efforts. State and local NRCS offices also can help ranchers apply for cost-share funds (other farm bill provisions) to make environmental or wildlife habitat improvements. One initiative focus, for example, is to encourage ranchers to stop the invasion of such woody species as the eastern redcedar.
During its first two years, the NRCS initiative attracted tremendous interest, said Christian Hagen, LPCI science advisor. That led to more than 550 contracts, providing almost $18 million in benefits that are affecting about 700,000 acres.
In Kansas, USDA's Farm Service Agency has been working with the state wildlife agency, too, said Rod Winkler, FSA-CRP specialist. They've been identifying areas with lesser prairie-chicken habitat, trying to get more and more specific.
For more than a decade, the Kansas CRP selection process has awarded extra points when landowners in those areas apply for a general contract. That's part of why two-thirds of Kansas' CRP acres are in the western third of the state.
In 2010, Kansas also got permission to offer a continuous (no-competition) CRP contract for 30,000 acres, targeted even more specifically for wildlife enhancement. And, landowners signed up. The offering was gone in less than two years.
So, Winkler has applied for another 75,000-acre wildlife enhancement allotment, to devote to the lesser prairie-chicken.
"Usually, continuous enrollment gets offered for small, narrow parcels. But, the lesser prairie-chicken requires large areas of range," he said. "Landowners in targeted areas can come in any time and offer a quarter or even a section."
As a result of such efforts, Winkler believes Kansas may actually be home to as much as 80 percent of the remaining lesser prairie-chicken population. Like Pitman, he believes the FWS should look at that local success story before deciding to list the bird under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
By law, the FWS must base its threatened or endangered species proposals on science and likely trends, according to Michelle Shaughnessy, who coordinated the past year's FWS review of the lesser prairie-chicken.