Status of Lesser Prairie-Chickens Debated in Kansas, and Conservation Efforts Designed to Provide Habitat Continue

September 10, 2010

News

The Threatened and Endangered Species Task Committee, established by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, recently voted to deny, at this time, classification of the Lesser Prairie-chicken as a threatened species in the state of Kansas.  The Kansas Ornithological Society filed the petition, and six local Audubon Society chapters signed on as part of that petition, to request that the Lesser Prairie-chicken be considered for designation as a state threatened species.Audubon of Kansas was not a part of the petition.  We considered the request that we join and had a diversity of views on our Board of Trustees.  One of our Trustees, who is one of the country’s foremost experts on Prairie-chickens, indicated that he did not think that it would be designated in Kansas at this time, and questioned whether designation would have the desired conservation benefits everyone involved are striving to achieve.  It was also determined that the filing by KOS was sufficient to facilitate the formal review process.

Photo Courtesy of Judd Patterson

Meanwhile, Audubon of Kansas has been working on many fronts to promote and improve programs that have the potential of conserving and/or enhancing Lesser Prairie-chicken habitat.  Most importantly, we spearheaded an effort in the USDA State Technical Committee to establish “Wildlife” as a resource of “Primary Concern.” Following that the EQIP Subcommittee (of which we are a part) designated that 3% of the current year’s fiscal $20 million funding for USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) would be available for practices that will benefit Prairie-chickens.  Unfortunately this is a new program option and only a few landowners applied and only a small fraction of the available  funding was allocated to benefit Prairie-chicken habitat.  We all need to work together to spread the word and make more range landowners aware of this option.

We have also been working at virtually every State Technical Committee meeting and subcommittee meeting for years to discourage cost-sharing and limit the practice of aerial and broadcast spraying of herbicides on native rangelands to control “brush.”  A tremendous amount of tax dollars are used for cost-share incentives to spray herbicides for “brush management,” and while the removal of trees and overbearing expanses of brush on upland rangeland sites may be beneficial to grassland birds, eliminating the hundreds of other native forbs and shrubs in the surrounding grassland is highly detrimental in many ways.  Native forbs, and some component of shrubs, are needed to provide suitable habitat to Prairie-chickens, Bobwhite Quail and a great diversity of other birds and wildlife.  Furthermore, none of this “brush control” does much good for any wildlife if the range manager’s grazing and burning strategies do not leave sufficient residual vegetation for nesting, brood, foraging or year round escape cover.

The plan prepared by Dr. Robert Robel on the habitat needs of prairie grouse at Audubon of Kansas’ 5,000-acre Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary in Nebraska serves as one management model where grassland birds are a priority.  To view the full report online, click here.

Back to grassland birds in Kansas, we have also helped and succeeded in removing bromegrass and other invasive and introduced non-native grasses from eligibility in many of the EQIP grass planting practices in EQIP.  Native grasses with inclusion of forbs are now a standard for most practices.We have also been active and supportive in designation of the occupied range of Lesser Prairie-chickens in Kansas as a priority area for the last several general CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) signups, including the one recently held in August. Again, our successful promotion and that of others to incorporate and increase the percentage of forbs in CRP native grass plantings has substantial wildlife benefits.  A number of us have been working together to prepare another SAFE CRP proposal for Lesser Prairie-chickens to try to include an additional 30,000 acres of expiring CRP, which may be otherwise lost, in the program for another ten years.  Those lands will have to be within two miles of a block of 2,000 acres of suitable native habitat.  The Playa Lakes Joint Venture initiated this proposal.There are a number of statements in the T&E Task Committee’s report that may be somewhat questionable.  For example, the statement that “These efforts may be less effective or less extensive if the species was listed as Threatened or Endangered.”  It is certainly not true that the federal agencies would diminish their attention to the species if it is designated as a state threatened species-the contrary may be true.

See the text of the full document here.

We thank everyone involved, including chapter leaders, KOS leaders, wildlife agency staff and others for all they/you have done to underscore the importance of taking actions to protect Lesser Prairie-chickens.We hope that energy companies (including windpower developers, sponsors of transmission lines, oil and gas companies, etc.) will voluntarily avoid destruction of critically important habitat for the species, and sufficient habitat will be maintained and properly managed by private landowners (most of the habitat they rely on is private land) so that the species does not become, in reality, biologically threatened or endangered.  It appears that it already is threatened in the other four states where fewer and fewer Lesser Prairie-chickens reside.  Kansas is the only state with substantial populations in the southwestern third of the state.  We will continue to work in every venue to advance conservation of Prairie-chickens.

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About AOK

A statewide, 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization established to promote appreciation and stewardship of Kansas’ natural ecosystems, with special emphasis on conservation of prairies, birds, other wildlife and their habitat.

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