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FWS Receives Partial Funding to Start the Listing Process for the Lesser P

FWS Receives Partial Funding to Start the Listing Process for the Lesser Prairie Chicken

Agencies Facilitate a Ranch Conversation with Woodward, Okla. Landowners

 For many landowners the choice to support the listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken is a choice between habitat, the weight of the history of northwest Oklahoma and the future of the economy of the area. With nearly all of the land in Woodward county privately owned, the only way for habitat to be restored is in the hands of the local producers and landowners.

For many landowners the choice to support the listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken is a choice between habitat, the weight of the history of northwest Oklahoma and the future of the economy of the area. With nearly all of the land in Woodward county privately owned, the only way for habitat to be restored is in the hands of the local producers and landowners.

Tom Lucas, High Plains RC&D coordinator, watches with Woodward County landowners as Program Specialist Kenneth Hitch explains the variety of voluntary programs offered by the NRCS that can help to reestablish habitat favorable to the Lesser Prairie Chicken.  Many of the producers in the room have grown up with Lucas who facilitated the Ranch Conversation February 23, 2010.

 Tom Lucas, High Plains RC&D coordinator, watches with Woodward County landowners as Program Specialist Kenneth Hitch explains the variety of voluntary programs offered by the NRCS that can help to reestablish habitat favorable to the Lesser Prairie Chicken.  Many of the producers in the room have grown up with Lucas who facilitated the Ranch Conversation February 23, 2010.

As you drive through the Oklahoma historic prairie chicken habitat range in the northwest part of the state, you pass the tractor tucks loading under grain elevators that tower over the tiny high plains towns with Native American names. Here, if producers are not raising cattle they are growing something that feeds cattle or some combination of the two. There is barely a trickle of water in the North Canadian River and that emphasizes the looming drought. The leafless deciduous trees interspersed with eastern Redcedar stretch over broken down fences that remind residents of the kind of history that was the topic of epic Hollywood movies. In some cases, the precariously leaning housing structures may have once seeped a decade of dust into the lungs of people who still work the land. In other cases, the broken windmills could mark the original homestead site the landowner’s family built in the late 1800’s.

According to 82 year-old landowner and cattle rancher Albert Williams, for many of the land owners who didn’t leave the area during the great depression the oil and gas industries made it possible for ranches, like the one his father passed to him, to continue production even through droughts. He is worried about the drought the state is anticipating this year. Williams says in addition to environmental conditions the economy is taking its toll as well. He says that while the work of getting a calf ready to sell has remained the same, the cost of doing business has increased to the point where having a sustainable operation is getting harder and harder.

As you drive into Woodward from Highway 183 you can see the towers harvesting wind energy on nearly every ridge surrounding the town. The wind in Oklahoma is not likely to stop blowing so this seemingly perpetual renewable resource is the next in-demand industry that is helping producers supplement their operations.

Nearly all of the land in Woodward County is privately owned. More than 100 private landowners convened February 23, 2010, at the High Plains Technical Institute in Woodward, Okla., to attend the fifth in a series of ranch conversations discussing the status of the other resident of the county that could change everything about everything: the lesser prairie chicken.

The lesser prairie chicken is a species of upland bird that in 2008, with low population numbers, earned the highest rating this bird species can rate as a candidate for listing under the Threatened and Endangered Species Act. The historical range for the bird covers five states; Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. These states and federal agencies have been working together to improve the habitat these prairie chickens live in.

The meeting was organized by High Plains RC&D, Buffalo, a Natural Resources Conservation Service sponsored organization, several local rural development partners and private sponsors. The producers and the partnership of state, local and federal agencies have been conversing about the potential listing of the bird for a decade, but Wednesday night the Biologist Ken Collins of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the agency has received partial funding to begin the process that will determine whether the bird is listed as threatened, endangered or the consideration for listing is withdrawn all together. The proposed rule is estimated to take 18 months to complete, the whole process . . . over two years.

The impact of listing could extend to the land owners through their leases with oil and gas companies and wind energy contracts. There is no grandfather clause that protects people who have already established these leases. The placement of these structures could have to be changed to meet standards that will be set to provide optimal habitat restoration for the bird. Any new development would have to go through processes that can delay the construction of nearly anything by months if not years.

After the presentations by agencies there was a period for questions from the landowners. The conversation was intense but civil. Many wondered what, about this bird, is worth more than the weight of the past, the struggles of the present, and the prosperity perceived for the future? Donald Wolfe, senior biologist with The Sutton Avian Research Center explained that the lesser prairie chicken is considered an indicator species. That means the birds are greatly affected by any changes in their habitat and their presence indicates that the environment is doing well enough to support a sensitive species. He also said that they are considered an umbrella species. That means the things that are done to benefit this species will also benefit other plant and animal species, wild and domestic.

One producer noted the ways other endangered species have been restored and enquired whether those other methods would be effective for this species as well. For other upland and endangered species, scientists were able to repopulate abandoned but suitable habitat using methods that increase reproduction. The problem for this species is not an attack on the reproduction process, necessarily, it is the disappearance of suitable habitat that has caused their numbers to dwindle. Therefore, the only way to restore the population is to restore the habitat where they can live.

Through the presentations the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation presented the variety of voluntary practices that make up the current overall plan to restore the habitat through brush management and removing unnecessary and unused structures like broken fences and old broken windmills and in some cases some of the dilapidated homestead structures, then restoring the ideal nesting, feeding and living habitat that consists mostly of native grasses.

NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to producers to accomplish these goals. In financial assistance alone, the agency has $2.8 million available to landowners and producers in counties that fall in the lesser prairie chicken habitat range that can be applied to restoring habitat. The Lesser Prairie Chicken Habitat Initiative is scheduled to continue for at least two more years with similar funding levels. Roger Wells represented The National Wild Turkey Federation and said the organization was willing to support area producers and landowners as they need to acquire the equipment to accomplish the goals of the programs of the federal and state agencies.

Brush management can help landowners control eastern redcedar, mostly through the use of mechanical removal and prescribed fire. Control of these species are not only beneficial for the bird, it can also increase the usefulness of land the landowners have already lost because of encroachment. Prescribed fire is also effective in encouraging growth of native grasses which include the legumes the birds eat. The practice also reduces the threat of wildfire to private lands by reducing fuel loads. Ron Voth, Oklahoma Wildlife and Prairie Heritage Association offered information for producers who might be interested in joining the current effort to form a state-wide burn association to help secure liability insurance to cover prescribed burning and limit losses from planned burns that get out of control, which is one of the major concerns for people who are unsure about the use of fire as a management tool.

Another threat to the species habitat are the broken fences that no longer hold anything in, the windmills that can’t draw water from a well but provide a perch for predators and other structures that impede the travel of the lesser prairie chicken to their mating grounds. More than one program is offered to help producers remove these unnecessary and unusable structures. Programs exist to help mark the first and third wire on any useful fence line to help reduce bird deaths from impact with the fence.

While time is short, it isn’t too late for conservation efforts to be lead locally. Because the county is nearly entirely privately owned land, the only people who can do anything to prevent the listing are the land owners at this point. The only other species of prairie chicken currently listed on the Threatened and Endangered Species List is the Attwaters Prairie Chicken. It has been listed since 1967.

By Public Affairs Specialist Crystal Young
NRCS February 2011

Last Modified: 04/21/2011

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