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Grazing and Prairie-chickens

Grazing, Along with Prairie-Chickens
Or
 Prairie-Chickens, Along with Grazing

By Roger Tacha, Resource Conservationist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Oakley, Kansas

Okay, which? Should it be one or the other? Cattle with prairie-chickens, or "chickens" with cattle? Read on, then YOU decide.

There are two species of prairie-chickens in Kansas. Greater prairie-chickens inhabit certain grasslands in most of the state, except southwest Kansas. Lesser prairie-chickens occur mainly in suitable rangelands in westcentral and southwest Kansas. Both birds are native species of the plains, long before settlement—and they are still "hanging on."

Both greater and lesser "chickens" have recently drawn a lot of attention from a wide audience ranging from wildlife biologists, to legislators, to ranchers, to federal and state conservation agencies, to researchers, to non-governmental conservation groups. This is due primarily to the fact that prairie-chicken populations are declining in most places.

There are some activities that could even lead to the lesser prairie-chicken being listed as a Threatened and Endangered Species (T&E) because of all this.

Greater and lesser prairie-chickens, in general, require similar kinds of grassland habitats, whether it is native range, or planted—such as acres in the Conservation Reserve Program. That said, the most obvious detriment to the prairie-chicken is the conversion of these lands to cropland. This is mostly economically driven and unlikely to reverse itself for the benefit of the prairie-chicken alone.

But what is POSITIVE for prairie-chickens is the fact that there is STILL significant grassland acreage, and it can be managed for the IMPROVEMENT of BOTH livestock forage AND prairie-chickens—AT THE SAME TIME!

Many producers/ranchers are already doing high-level range management that improves/maintains their range plants, which in turn improves livestock performance and health-which ALSO PROVIDES PRAIRIE-CHICKEN HABITATS. Their land is where most of the remaining prairie-chickens ARE!!

These "pastures" are generally being grazed with stocking rates that match what the land can realistically handle. They are following a plan for rest-rotation grazing or partial-season grazing. The fields with best nesting cover are usually grazed after the bird-nesting period. In grazing systems with less than four pastures, livestock are usually cycled through the fields only once.

Winter grazing is closely regulated and usually confined to fields dedicated to winter use only. Prescribed burning is often needed for brush control and improving plant vigor. In the case of brush management, fire is used timely and periodically, and only on portions of the range at a time.

Whether or not any of these range managers are doing all this management for prairie-chickens is probably irrelevant, secondary at best. There are many proven indicators of rangeland health—most are based on plant and soil properties. But the presence or possibility of presence, of prairie-chickens living in a pasture might be the grand prize indicator of a rancher’s management perfection.

Are prairie-chickens there, or not? Would they like what they see when they find it?

It probably does not matter whether the range is grazed just to benefit prairie-chickens, or whether chickens are there because the producer’s livestock and plants are doing well. If prairie-chickens are, or could be there, then—plant and wildlife resources ARE good.

If prairie-chickens are not there, can the range logically be changed so they COULD be there? The answer is often, YES!

The U.S. Department of Agriculture NRCS offer technical and financial assistance to producers for addressing prairie-chicken habitat needs through certain range management practices. Your local NRCS office can get those questions answered and issues defined for you. Stop in.

The office is located at your local USDA Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov). More information is available on the Kansas Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov. Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.