The effort to save one of America’s most beloved upland birds proves what’s good for the bird is good for the herd.
Huddled in a blind on a 30,000-acre ranch in New Mexico, Jake Swafford, a Farm Bill wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, waits patiently in the morning darkness for an annual ritual to begin. As the glow of the eastern sun starts to creep over the horizon, dark figures with heavy wing-beats make a slight rise over shinnery oak-covered dunes before landing on a reclaimed oil pad.
“Great start,” Swafford whispers, with more than a hint of enthusiasm.
The lesser prairie-chicken is a grassland-nesting upland bird found in the mixed grass, sand-sage, and shinnery oak prairies of western Kansas, southeast Colorado, northwest Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and eastern New Mexico. Once a common sight on their historic range across the South Plains, this humble member of the grouse family has experienced more than an 85 percent reduction in population since European settlement in the late 1800s. Consequently, since May 2014, the bird has been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
A recent study of habitat conditions preferred by the native bird shows a decline by as much as 92 percent across their range, according to federal scientists. What’s more, as of 2014, an estimated 22,415 individual birds comprised the entire population of lesser prairie-chickens in North America. Threats from habitat loss and fragmentation will only increase with proposed energy developments, agricultural conversions, and other land uses in the future. Despite this sobering news, organizations such as Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever are working in close partnership with many other groups, landowners, and agencies to restore one of America’s most beloved upland birds.
Working side-by-side with ranchers and producers, Swafford is one of 10 partner-funded biologists and range conservationists who are helping to implement the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative in the south-central plains of the United States in hopes of restoring this iconic species to its former glory in partnership with nonprofit organizations, universities, and businesses. The initiative’s mission is twofold: to increase the abundance and distribution of the lesser prairie-chicken while also promoting the overall health of grazing lands and the long-term sustainability of ranching operations in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico.
“The goal of LPCI is to help farmers and ranchers run profitable operations while they protect and restore habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken,” Swafford says. “Working through LPCI helps to provide certainty for these producers against any future regulatory actions that an ‘endangered’ listing could have throughout the southern Great Plains. These birds are a great indicator of environmental health, and we hope to get more landowners interested in Farm Bill programs so that they can see the benefits to themselves and this special bird.”
Similar to other wildlife found in the United States, the lesser prairie-chicken relies heavily on the actions of individual landowners for the survival of the species. Habitat loss significantly increases the extinction risk for the lesser prairie-chicken because the bird requires unusually large parcels of intact native grassland and shrubland, often in excess of 20,000 acres, to maintain self-sustaining populations. By providing functional solutions for America’s ranching community, biologists are able to maintain — and expand — lesser prairie-chicken habitat.
What’s good for the bird is good for the herd. “Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Farm Bill biologists working on LPCI have the knowledge to help landowners find the right program to fit the needs of productive rangeland and healthy wildlife,” Swafford says. Through a unique partnership, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists are stationed at USDA Service Centers in priority habitat areas throughout the lesser prairie-chicken range to assist landowners with their personal habitat and land-use goals.
A prime example of ranching for wildlife can be found on the rangelands of eastern New Mexico where Tom Davis, a landowner in Roosevelt County, has implemented prescribed grazing systems on about 17,000 acres of his family’s 100-year-old ranch. Working with Swafford to implement Farm Bill conservation practices such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Davis has received financial assistance to establish best management practices for the longevity of his ranch, as well as for the benefit of lesser prairie-chickens and other wildlife.
“Working with Pheasants Forever and the LPCI, I’ve been able to add structure and cover on my ranch that helps bird and beast,” Davis says. “My current herd is down 50 percent due to persistent drought conditions that started in 2010. I view my enrolled Farm Bill practices as a safety net for future years of dry weather. Not only has my prescribed grazing plan built grass reserves for my herd, but it is also aiding wildlife populations.”
The collaboration between Davis’ operation, Pheasants Forever, and LPCI provides a noteworthy example of the importance of working ranches in the recovery of our nation’s imperiled species. Ranchers and farmers can use the assistance provided through LPCI to implement grazing management systems, remove invasive foliage, plant grasses and shrubs suitable for rangeland, and add buffers to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality. In most cases, practices that are good for the birds are good for cattle and can lead to improved rangeland health.
“One area of my operation that has benefitted greatly from using EQIP practices is the management of mesquite and cactus invasion on the ranch,” Davis says. “Our grasslands are starting to return after the removal of these species from the landscape. In addition, I’ve noticed a nice crop of quail in the last year and hope for the repopulation of lesser prairie-chickens in the future.”
As an added bonus, producers with land in the lesser prairie-chicken range can gain regulatory predictability if they work with LPCI to voluntarily undertake conservation activities that benefit the bird’s population and habitat. An agreement between the USDA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that ranchers and farmers can receive regulatory assurances from USFWS for up to 30 years by carrying out these voluntary conservation activities as long as the lesser prairie-chicken is listed as threatened.
Swafford is quick to acknowledge that even though state and federal conservation programs exist for chickens and other wildlife, signing up for such practices can seem overwhelming in the eyes of a producer. But they don’t have to be.
“The existence of our biologist program is to help producers make easy, educated decisions for their land,” Swafford says. More than 100 biologist partnership positions exist across the United States to provide one-on-one assistance and guide landowners through the conservation planning process from A to Z.
With more than 95 percent of lesser prairie-chicken habitat located on privately held lands, the private sector plays a pivotal role in the successful management and progression of lesser prairie-chickens and a host of other wildlife species. The true conservation heroes of LPCI are ranchers of the southern Great Plains who voluntarily implement conservation measures designed to benefit lesser prairie-chickens.
Back in the viewing blind, the sun rises and a spring dancing ritual ensues, just as it has for centuries. Despite their timeless quality, one can’t help but feel concerned for these imperiled birds. Future generations deserve to see this. And thanks to landowners who want to play a part in a conservation success story, they hopefully will. With any luck, this won’t be the lesser prairie-chicken’s last dance.
For more information about Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, visit www.pheasantsforever.org and www.quailforever.org. For more information on the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, go to www.lpcinitiative.org.