Healthy rangelands help the long-term sustainability of the landowner and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Practices that bolster the bird’s habitat are also good for ranching, and can lead to improved rangeland health. NRCS provides technical and cost-assistance for grazing management programs under the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
In response to severe population decline of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 2014, listed the bird as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
Whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act has been discussed, and cussed, for years. Ranchers have worried about what measures the federal government might impose on them, since the bird lives mostly on private range land under the management of ranchers. That is what this, and the next several episodes, are about. What do ranchers do, now that the bird’s been listed? How will ranching productivity and profitability be affected?
One scientist who’s researched this species for the Natural Resources Conservation Service says, if a rancher already is managing for sustainable healthy grass, he’s already steps ahead. Christian Hagen is Science Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.
“When a producer is managing his range land for long-term sustainability, ultimately, he’s managing for grass health. If somebody is doing that for the long term, by default, that producer is going to be managing habitat for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.”
If one already is using progressive range-management techniques, this bird’s new status as “threatened” should have minimal impact on ranching.
There’s the concept of “take,” a word with specific meaning in the regulations written for creatures protected by federal law. Hunters are familiar with the word; “take” means to shoot, to harvest, a bird. There are other forms of “take,” all of them prohibited since the bird’s listing.
“Take may also include significant habitat modification or degradation if it kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering.” That’s Jon Ungerer, who is coordinating the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative over a five-state region.
Many critters listed as “threatened” or “endangered” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are on public land, where the agency exerts much more control. But the Lesser Prairie-Chicken lives mostly on private lands.
“We have a situation now where we have a species where 90 to 95 percent of the landscape is privately owned or privately managed. So there really isn’t a federal mechanism to provide any of that regulatory authority.”
There’s a rule, the “4(d) Rule,” that came out in the final listing decision, that describes activities that if a producer is working with NRCS or an other conservation agency and has the land under a conservation management program, then, if a bird is run over by a piece of farm machinery, the landowner won’t be held liable for its loss. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a novel, cutting-edge approach. That 4(d) rule says, “If we’re working with folks whose long-term goal is to improve the habitat for this bird, and a bird or two get hurt as we’re trying to accomplish that, we’re willing to accept that.”
“What I would tell anyone owning land in prairie-chicken country is to not be afraid to consult with their local NRCS office. They’re trying to make sure that the advice they give to ranchers is consistent with their agricultural operations.” Good advice from Zac Eddy, senior biologist in Kansas for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
The arguments, the hair-pulling and lapel-tearing have gone on for years. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s been listed. I asked Jon Ungerer whether the world as we know it has come to an end.
“There are a number of alternatives that really can help to lessen the impact from this listing. I think as long as the producer realizes that, gets a conservation plan in place, it really can be business as usual.”
Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Original broadcast: November 2014