Kansas is in an awkward position.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by Sept. 30 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 decision could have a wide-ranging impact.
“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 Fish and Wildlife Service 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 policy makers, 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.
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?
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.
Jon Ungerer coordinates the five-state Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, introduced in 2010 by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). 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.
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.