Initiative Helps New Mexico Rancher Manage Rangeland


Kyle Dillard, a Milnesand rancher is taking advantage of an NRCS program. He’s a cow/calf man in eastern New Mexico, right in the middle of a large Lesser Prairie-Chicken population. Dillard discusses how the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative helps him manage his rangeland and provide better habitat for the bird.

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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 March 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed as threatened, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. It’s prompted concern among ranchers about what rules and regulations are in store for them to deal with in regions where the bird lives. The Fish and Wildlife Service is cooperating with conservation agencies such as Natural Resources Conservation Service to work with ranchers and farmers to develop range conservation plans to bolster the bird’s habitat, while providing guidance and cost-share funds to land managers to improve rangeland.

Kyle Dillard is taking advantage of an NRCS program. He ranches at Milnesand in eastern New Mexico — right in the middle of a large Lesser Prairie-Chicken population. His is a cow-calf operation.

“We ranch on about 50 sections. This is a shortgrass prairie. I mean, we have the big blue stem and the little blue stem, and gramma grass, and we have some buffalo grass. We’re mainly in sand, but we probably have about a third of the ranch is topsoil. Our annual rainfall, I think, is somewhere between 14 and 16 inches.”

Some locations on the High Plains are beginning to recover from a three-plus year drought in which population surveys conducted by Lesser Prairie-Chicken biologists documented a 50 percent decline of the already hard-pressed bird. But as the drought eases in some areas, population numbers have increased slightly.

“In 2010, we had six inches of rain for the year. In 2011, I think we had three inches of rain. Nothing flourishes very well when it doesn’t rain any more than that. We’ve been in such a bad drought, and that’s what’s hurt the prairie-chicken numbers.”

Kyle says around June 15th, 2013, finally… rain returned.

“It seemed like about every time we needed some rain, we would get one. We never had any big rains, but they were steady. So, we had a pretty good year last year, and it’s been a really good year this year. Things look a lot better. If we get back to a more regular weather cycle, we’ll see the chickens will start to come back.”

Kyle made the decision to sign-up with Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the agency’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative. NRCS will provide the range-manager with technical assistance regarding managed grazing, and provide some cost-share money to get projects done.

“Some of the different things that they are doing is a deferred grazing program… they have some fencing programs where you’re taking down old fences or putting in new, and quite a few different ones developing water — whether it’s putting in pipeline, or solar, or storage.”

Different regions where the Lesser Prairie-Chicken lives are seeing the bird’s habitat challenged by invasive plants. “Then, there’s also some programs to spray, where you’re spraying the shinnery or mesquite.”

Zac Eddy is senior wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever in Kansas. “What I would tell anyone owning land in prairie-chicken country is to not be afraid to consult with their local NRCS office.”

Zac says a lot of landowners he encounters have a fear that if they get into a conservation plan with NRCS, then the government’s going to baby sit and monitor everything the manager does on the land.

“That is not necessarily true. These conservation plans are designed with the landowner’s goals in mind, and there are a wide range of plans and programs that can be used to tailor an agreement to the landowner’s needs and objectives.”

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

Posted: February 15, 2015
Topics: Grazing Management, Landowner Stories, Lesser Prairie-Chicken