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.