On March 30, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service its fourth annual report detailing achievements under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan. Among other accomplishments, WAFWA reported on the permanent conservation of land in three ecoregions, including a stronghold that was created with the placement of a conservation easement on a nearly 30,000-acre ranch in Kansas. In addition, the population of the bird is trending upward, a promising sign.
“We’re in this for the long haul and we’re just four years in at this point,” said J.D. Strong, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and Chairman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “We’re pleased at the progress that has been made thus far. The population trend is encouraging, as is the continued support of all of our partners who are participating in the range-wide plan.”
The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of the state wildlife agencies of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado as well as other private and public partners involved in lesser prairie-chicken conservation. It was developed to enhance lesser prairie-chicken conservation by refocusing existing efforts and also established a new mitigation framework, administered by WAFWA, to encourage greater voluntary cooperation of landowners and industry participants. This plan allows industry participants to continue operations while restoring and maintaining habitat and reducing development impacts to the bird and its habitat.
The plan was endorsed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013, and as part of the conservation effort, the states agreed to report annually on the overall progress of the plan. Findings for 2017 include:
Lesser prairie-chicken population stable, trending up
The annual lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey used to monitor populations was conducted from March through May 2017. The breeding population was estimated at 33,269 birds in 2017 which was up 34% from the previous year. There has been a statistically significant increasing trend in the range-wide lesser prairie-chicken breeding population since 2013 when drought subsided across much of their range. The average rate of annual increase since that time has been 2,931 birds.
Permanent conservation efforts on private land are bolstered in 2017
During this reporting period, WAFWA secured permanent conservation in three ecoregions by finalizing agreements with five landowners. One site consists of 968 acres of privately owned native rangeland in the mixed-grass ecoregion in south central Kansas. WAFWA purchased a perpetual easement, held by Pheasants Forever, that protects the conservation values of the site. This property is adjacent to a property WAFWA has already permanently conserved, bringing the complex total to 2,726 acres.
In September 2017, permanent conservation easements were finalized with three different landowners to secure a complex of 3,682 acres in the shortgrass ecoregion in northwest Kansas. The Nature Conservancy holds these easements.
WAFWA acquired the title to a 29,718-acre Kansas ranch in the sand sagebrush ecoregion in 2016, and in March 2017, a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy was placed on the ranch. The property meets all the criteria to be considered a stronghold, which is defined as a large area of high-quality habitat that can sustain a population into the future. WAFWA will continue to manage the property as a working cattle ranch.
Private land lease agreements enhance conservation efforts
In March 2017, a new 10-year term agreement was signed with a landowner in the mixed-grass ecoregion on 12,738 acres in southern Kansas. An additional 10-year agreement was signed with another landowner on a 160-acre inholding within the larger tract. Both properties are grazed and managed as one unit.
NFWF grant enhances lesser prairie-chicken habitat
During 2017, WAFWA provided $153,945 in funding to a private landowner in the shinnery oak ecoregion in the Texas Panhandle for mechanical removal of invasive mesquite. The funding for that agreement was provided by a ConocoPhillips Spirit of Conservation Grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The agreement prescribed 933 acres of brush management in a high priority area that is immediately adjacent to a property that is occupied by the species and permanently conserved. All the restoration work prescribed through this agreement was completed prior to the end of this reporting period and lesser prairie-chicken are expected to quickly benefit from the new habitat.
Industry projects mitigated
In 2017, there were 169 industry projects processed and mitigated. These projects required $1,426,961.45 in mitigation fees. There continues to be a substantial surplus of credits available. In 2017, participant companies reduced impacts on lesser prairie-chicken habitat by voluntarily siting 74% of new development with pre-existing development and by siting most new developments in areas that have poor or marginal habitat quality. These siting decisions also significantly reduced the amount of mitigation fees required to offset the new development.
Cooperative efforts enhancing conservation
A two-year renewable agreement with Pheasants Forever was extended for the second year of the agreement to partially fund five positions located throughout the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. This is a cooperative effort between the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever and WAFWA. The supported positions will assist all the partnering entities with program promotion, monitoring activities, and conservation planning. In addition, a video highlighting the WAFWA lesser prairie-chicken program was produced and can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TI4M_uPgqlM
Contact: Roger Wolfe, 785.256.3737
Photo Credit: Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism
Full details are in the annual report, which will be available on the WAFWA website at www.wafwa.org
Since 1922, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has advanced conservation in western North America. Representing 23 western states and Canadian provinces, WAFWA’s reach encompasses more than 40 percent of North America, including two-thirds of the United States. Drawing on the knowledge of scientists across the West, WAFWA is recognized as the expert source for information and analysis about western wildlife. WAFWA supports sound resource management and building partnerships at all levels to conserve wildlife for the use and benefit of all citizens, now and in the future.
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