Designation of lesser prairie chicken must consider landowner needs

July 22, 2021 3:33 am

Because 98% of Kansas lands are privately owned, conservation efforts to protect the lesser prairie chicken fall on the shoulders of landowners. (Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

I never thought much about the lesser prairie chicken, or any of the grassland grouse species for that matter. Growing up in Kansas I was familiar with the bird, of course, but had only seen them fleetingly as a child, and that memory faded over time. Then in 2019 — driven more by an interest in photography than prairie chickens — I attended a presentation by conservation photographer Noppadol Paothong who traveled the country documenting grassland grouse and falling in love with the birds as he worked. That evening, through his stories of mornings on the prairie and his ethereal, sunlit photographs, he made me care too. So I supported the recent proposal that the lesser prairie chicken be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and conservation efforts to protect the bird be implemented in western Kansas.

But there is a reality here that does not exist in many other parts of the country, which is that approximately 98% of Kansas land is privately owned, leaving conservation efforts to fall on the shoulders of landowners. Currently, many of those landowners along with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and entities such as The Nature Conservancy have collaborated to implement conservation efforts to save the lesser prairie chicken. Those efforts have worked. Lesser prairie chicken populations in western Kansas have increased, so to many, the listing does not make sense. But biologists are looking to the future, and the bird’s ability to sustain population growth in the face of habitat degradation and the increasing likelihood of long-term drought. Although populations have grown, conservation efforts are not outpacing diminishing habitat, which leaves the lesser prairie chicken threatened.

On July 8 and July 14, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held virtual public meetings where it explained information concerning the areas where the highest bird populations exist and allowed for public comment on the listing. Landowner fears were apparent as they questioned how their land and livelihoods would be impacted, because this type of designation can limit what individuals are free to do on their land. Environmentalists, including myself, need to take this into consideration. If we want conservation in Kansas, it is imperative that landowners are involved in decision-making.

Many landowners are already involved through what is known as the Conservation Reserve Program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Implemented in 1985, CRP is a voluntary program where landowners enter into 10-15 year contracts and are paid to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and instead plant grass species that prevent soil erosion, contribute to water quality, and reduce loss of habitat. Clay Nichols of the FWS said in the meetings that CRP has been “instrumental” in conservation efforts thus far.

Indeed, according to the FWS’s proposed rule, 1,822,000 acres in the habitat analysis area (including counties in neighboring states) are currently enrolled in CRP. It seems like a win-win for everyone. The problem is, monies paid to landowners no longer meet current market value. And as those contracts come up, landowners are not re-enrolling but are instead choosing to graze, plant crops, or even sell off their land to sustain their income. Lands enrolled in CRP have seen an annual decline since 2007. The loss of CRP land has seen the loss of habitat for the lesser prairie chicken. This is just one example of how a lack of collaboration between agencies frustrates landowners.

“A lot of ranchers are barely surviving,” said Stacy Hoeme, co-owner of Hoeme Ranch and Cattle. “And they are nervous about the designation. Most I know are going to do what they need to do for their livelihoods regardless of the ESA.”

Hoeme is also a bit nervous about the listing, but his family has long utilized conservation practices to sustain their land, and he says they will continue to do so. The family uses cell-grazing methods where cattle are rotated from one pasture to another, which promotes grassland health and bird habitat. Their land is currently home to approximately 200 lesser prairie chickens, and for the past three years they have been part of a tourism effort for eager birders. Those birders think he’s a savior, but he laughs at that and says he’s just a guy trying to make a living.

Lesser prairie chickens do need to be protected, and so do the livelihoods of private landowners. Done sustainably and collaboratively, it’s possible for both populations to have a better future.

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Shawna Bethell
Shawna Bethell

Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Before returning home, she wrote for several publications in the southwestern United States.