The only thing “lesser” about the lesser prairie chicken is its name. Indeed, this pheasant-sized bundle of (usually) non-descript feathers is the latest candidate species to find itself considered for a possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
And that, regardless of species, is a big deal.
In the past, such a move was typically accompanied by much wailing and thrashing of arms due to the implications for landowners lucky enough to provide habitat for a threatened or endangered species. While those implications still exist and are still very real, landowners and conservation agencies alike have learned that cooperation, rather than conflict, is the best method to ensure that everyone wins in what otherwise would be a losing proposition for all involved, including the species at the center of the fight.
That’s the approach landowners and agencies have taken in the past with such species as the black-tailed prairie dog, the sage grouse and the dunes sagebrush lizard. And it’s worked. Cooperation between landowners and conservation agencies has proven to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal agency responsible for carrying out the ESA, that sufficient habitat is being managed for the benefit of the candidate species to preclude the need for a listing.
First, some background
The lesser prairie chicken was first considered as a candidate for listing as threatened or endangered in 1998. Since then, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and state wildlife agencies in the five states that harbor lesser prairie chicken populations – Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado – have been working with landowners to enhance the bird’s habitat.
Once so populous that homesteaders recall they blackened the sky, it’s estimated that the bird now occupies less than 8% of its historic range – and more than 90% of those 100-million-plus acres are privately owned.
Kansas, home to roughly half of the total lesser prairie chicken population, is the only state where populations are stable or increasing. Populations in the other states are trending downward and biologists aren’t certain why, although it’s likely a combination of habitat fragmentation, drought and parasites.
Prodded by lawsuits from activist environmental groups, USFWS late last year initiated the process to determine if the bird should be listed as threatened under the ESA.
That means, says Manuel De Leon, NRCS biologist in Lubbock, TX, “It’s crunch time.” The clock is ticking and USFWS will decide, likely on Sept. 30, whether to list the lesser prairie chicken.
Both state and federal biologists don’t want the listing to happen. That’s because they’ve been working with landowners in a voluntary effort to preserve habitat. Should the bird be listed, the onerous provisions of the ESA will come into play and that, they fear, will effectively eliminate landowner cooperation.
NRCS is coordinating the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, a five-state effort that includes state wildlife agencies and groups such as the Nature Conservancy and private foundations to enhance lesser prairie chicken habitat. At the heart of the initiative are cooperative conservation agreements with landowners.
One rancher’s story
“Grass is so important. Outside of water, it’s probably our most important natural resource,” says L.H. Webb.
He knows a little something of that. He owns the Seven Cross Ranch north of McLean, TX, where he runs stockers in an often dry and unforgiving environment. He also happens to ranch smack dab in the middle of one of the last remaining lesser prairie chicken populations.
However, rather than view that as a problem, he sees it as an opportunity, a chance to make his ranch not only profitable, but sustainable for both cattle and wildlife.
“I’ve never focused on being a steward of any specific species, whether it’s wildlife or cattle or horses,” he says. “I’ve always tried to apply good grazing management and improve my pastures, the biodiversity of the plant species. As a byproduct, what makes a good ranch for grazing cattle makes a good habitat for all the native wildlife species in the Texas Panhandle, whether it’s the prairie chicken, prairie dogs or bobwhite quail. If you’ve got good habitat – good grass cover, forbs and all the interworkings of a diverse ecosystem – then you’ve got good habitat for the chickens and they can coexist with my grazing.”
According to Jeff Bonner, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) technical guidance biologist, grass cover for nesting is one of the most important habitat elements for lesser prairie chickens. But they also need weeds to produce the seeds they eat.
De Leon says the prairie ecosystem developed with grazing as a critical part of the mix. Bison would pass through and create a mosaic of grazed and ungrazed patches. In the areas they grazed, their hoof action would create enough disturbance to encourage weed growth.
“So grazing is a very important part of that,” Bonner says. “If grasslands go years and years without any disturbance, you get heavily grass-dominated and it won’t produce the weeds they need. That’s where cattle grazing is very important.”
To that end, Webb practices a form of high-intensity grazing. When fully stocked, he’ll have between 750 and 1,000 stockers on hand. “I put all my cattle in one herd in the summer, the growing season, and rotate them. Depending on the size of the pasture and the grass cover, that determines how long I’ll leave them in the pasture.” Some pastures will only be grazed a day before cattle are moved.
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However, he doesn’t hammer the pastures. “Some people have the idea that you go in and eat everything completely off, then get out, and it gets a long rest. I graze conservatively and I’d say I stock conservatively.”
He “flash grazes” his pastures, allowing cattle to top off the forage but not beat it into the ground. “Grazing activity actually stimulates root growth,” he says. And it leaves sufficient grass for wildlife, especially the lesser prairie chicken.
To help spread grazing pressure, Webb has developed miles of water lines to better distribute watering points, and uses a mineral trailer he can move to encourage cattle to graze more uniformly.
Webb is one of many ranchers in prairie chicken country to develop a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). A CCAA is a voluntary conservation plan put together with the help of wildlife biologists that takes into account the needs of the rancher to make a living while providing habitat assurances for the prairie chicken.
In essence, Bonner says, the CCAA is a permit that allows for incidental taking of prairie chicken habitat by certain management practices, such as brush control, prescribed fire, water development, grazing and others – all practices that enhance prairie chicken habitat as well as cattle production.
“The conservation part is the landowner agreeing to do things for prairie chicken habitat. The assurances part of that is that he can’t be prosecuted for incidental take and the feds can’t show up and ask him to do anything that’s not already listed in the management plan,” Bonner says.
All five states offer some form of a CCAA, says Jon Ungerer, Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative coordinator with the NRCS in Manhattan, KS. In some states, it might be USFWS staff they work with, he explains, or NRCS can develop a plan.
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“A producer entering into and agreeing to follow a Working Lands for Wildlife contract with NRCS is provided 30 years of certainty if they agree to implement the plan for 30 years,” he says.
The biologists say a CCAA or similar plan is important because, should USFWS determine that the lesser prairie chicken is threatened, landowners who aren’t protected by a conservation plan can’t do anything that might result in an incidental taking of habitat. That could include normal management practices such as controlled burning, fencing and even grazing.
That’s why both Bonner and De Leon encourage all landowners in prairie chicken country, even if they don’t have birds on their property, to consider a CCAA.
“We have just a little over 400,000 acres (in Texas) signed up in these CCAAs,” Bonner says. “The higher percentage of our prairie chicken country that we get signed up between now and this fall, the better ammo that USFWS has to not list the bird.”
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