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Prairie Grouse Meeting Showcases Latest Prairie-Chicken Research

How do range managers know they’re taking the right actions in the right places to conserve at-risk wildlife species? Through rigorous scientific research. That’s why the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative supports lesser prairie-chicken research projects across the southern Great Plains.

During the two-day meeting, LPCI Science Advisor Christian Hagen presented findings on two studies–assessing lesser prairie-chicken occupancy, and reasons for the decline in carrying capacity of lesser prairie-chicken populations.

This research took center stage last week at the 32nd annual Prairie Grouse Technical Council meeting in Dickinson, North Dakota, where more than 60 researchers gathered to share findings.

Three species of prairie grouse inhabit the Great Plains—sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie-chickens, and lesser prairie-chickens. Nearly half of the 32 presentations focused on or included lesser prairie-chickens.

Highlighted studies included:

  • Preliminary findings from a project in southeastern Colorado, where a research team is reintroducing lesser prairie-chickens from the shortgrass prairie of northwestern Kansas to the sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeastern Colorado.
  • An update on the annual aerial survey, now in its 7th year, which estimates the abundance of the lesser prairie-chicken across its range.
  • Discussion of causes of the declining carrying capacity of lesser prairie-chicken populations across the southern Great Plain, as well as potential solutions to this problem.
  • The importance of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands for lesser prairie-chicken recovery in Texas.
  • Specific grazing management strategies that can produce the habitat structural diversity and biodiversity that lesser prairie-chickens need, in the absence of fire.

    The meeting included a half-day site visit with many stops along the way, including this one in which Llewellyn Manske presented findings on the effects of 75 years of non-grazing on a mixed grass prairie exclosure.

  • Factors affecting lesser prairie-chicken brood survival in the sand shinnery oak ecoregion of western Texas and eastern New Mexico, including vegetative cover, and insect abundance.
  • Patch-burn grazing as an effective tool for providing the habitat diversity lesser prairie-chickens need throughout the year.

In the coming weeks, LPCI will be producing Science to Solutions summaries of two studies that have significant implications for grassland management in the southern Great Plains. Together the two studies suggest specific practices for managing grasslands to produce the kind of vegetative diversity that lesser prairie-chickens need.

Stay tuned!

Keeping the Grass in CRP Grasslands—LPCI and the Dust Bowl legacy

The Dust Bowl’s legacy has profoundly shaped ranching and wildlife conservation in the southern Great Plains. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative continues the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s long-standing commitment to helping agricultural producers restore healthy grasslands.

Farmer and sons in a dust storm, April, 1936. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo: Arthur Rothstein.

“I’m too young to have been through the Dust Bowl, but both my parents went through it,” Dwight Abell said, as he gazed out over the broad sweep of grasslands on his western Kansas ranch. “And my grandparents of course lived through it, back in the ’30s.”

“It was a bad time for everybody, but [my grandparents] made it through,” Abell said. “They didn’t do a whole lot of farming—they had mostly grass and cows.”

Abell’s great grandparents came to western Kansas in the 1880s. In 1908, they bought land and built the home where Abell and his family now live.

Back in the late 1800s, native prairie grasslands still stretched unbroken across much of the southern Great Plains. Fires regularly swept through, and prairie grasses and forbs responded with an explosion of new growth, which drew hungry herds of bison, pronghorn, and elk. This dynamic duo of fire and grazing by large herbivores shaped a robust prairie community.

Equipped with farming backgrounds and Homestead Act requirements to ‘prove up’ on their 160-acre parcels, most settlers plowed the prairie’s grasslands under and planted crops, even in the southern Great Plains—the hottest, driest region of the Plains.

Map of region hardest hit by during the Dust Bowl, overlaid with the boundaries of current and historic lesser prairie-chicken range. Click map for enlarged view.

During the Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s, homesteaders in the southern plains encountered the formidable limitations of farming in a region of low rainfall, high winds, and frequent droughts.  The native prairie plant community is well adapted to withstand these conditions, but the tilled soil was not. When prolonged drought struck, millions of acres of bone-dry soils lay exposed to the winds that regularly scour this region.

Dust Bowl winds carried off an estimated 480 tons of topsoil per acre in the southern Great Plains. Thick dust hung in the air and settled in deep, rolling drifts that suffocated grasslands, livestock, and wildlife. Poverty and famine gripped the region.

This epic calamity awakened Americans to the importance of preventing soil erosion and prompted the formation of the Soil Erosion Service in 1933. Congress then created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935 (later renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service), to work one-on-one with landowners and help them adopt sustainable agricultural practices that prevent further soil erosion.

NRCS also dispatched a team of scientists to map the region’s diverse soils. These soil survey maps allowed NRCS field staff to tailor conservation practices to meet the particular soil conditions of each farm.

The soil maps also identified areas where the soil was particularly vulnerable to erosion and would benefit from restoration back to grasslands. This restoration practice took a big leap forward in 1985, which the USDA launched the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

CRP offered farmers an alternative to planting fragile soils to crops. Instead, a farmer could receive an annual rent to plant marginal croplands back to grass and maintain them as grassland for 10-15 years. Through CRP, NRCS and FSA joined forces with local farming families and restored large areas of formerly cultivated lands back to prairie grassland.

Lesser prairie-chicken nest in CRP grassland, Kansas. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

It soon became apparent that, in addition to its intended goal of stabilizing soils, CRP also improved habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife. The southern plains region, epicenter of the Dust Bowl, is also the only place on Earth the lesser prairie-chicken inhabits. Once common on the southern Great Plains (scientists estimate a historic population of about one million), their numbers plummeted during the Dust Bowl era, and some thought the bird had gone extinct. They have rebounded somewhat since then, with a current population of about 33,000—a number still low enough to still leave the population highly vulnerable to further decline.

In encouraging recent studies, scientists have found that lesser prairie-chickens have reoccupied portions of their historical range by moving into former croplands now planted to CRP grasslands. What’s more, the birds have expanded beyond the bounds of their historical range in western Kansas by occupying newly created CRP grassland habitat (see map).

But scientists have found that, over time, the wildlife habitat values of restored and idled CRP acres declined, because these grasslands lacked the natural disturbances of large herbivore grazing and fire that historically sustained and revitalized them. Moreover, those CRP grasslands weren’t contributing to landowners’ agricultural operations, since the enrolled acreage had many limitations on mid-contract grazing.

Faced with the questions of how to improve habitat for at-risk wildlife and how to increase agricultural productivity on private agricultural operations, the USDA introduced the “Working Lands for Wildlife” concept, with the unprecedented proposition that strategically focused assistance to landowners could increase populations of at-risk wildlife while improving the sustainability of farms and ranches.

Male lesser prairie-chicken during springtime courtship display. Photo: David Haukos

The NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is a perfect example of this. LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners within the current range of the lesser prairie-chicken who voluntarily enhance lesser prairie-chicken habitat through conservation practices that also benefit their agricultural operations.

LPCI looks at habitat conservation for the lesser prairie-chicken from a landscape perspective, addressing key questions about their overall population dynamics. Where exactly do lesser prairie-chickens currently live, and what are the characteristics of that habitat? What obstacles are inhibiting population growth? Which conservation practices best address those issues? Where should we target these conservation practices to have the greatest return on investment?

While the answers to these questions continue to emerge through on-going research, some things are clear: Lesser prairie-chickens need expansive grassland habitat to survive, with diverse structure for nesting, brood rearing, hiding from predators, and sheltering from weather extremes.

Scientific studies and innovations help fine-tune LPCI’s outreach to landowners. Using detailed mapping of the extent and characteristics of the lesser prairie-chicken’s current range, LPCI identifies and focuses funding on the highest priority areas for conservation efforts—areas of core habitat and areas that have the potential for creating habitat corridors between those core areas.  With more than 95% of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat on private land, engaging private landowners in voluntary conservation practices is essential to the bird’s survival.

Helping ranchers transition their CRP acreage to grazing is one of LPCI’s core conservation strategies. Back in 2005, when Dwight Abell enrolled his land in CRP, he was clear about his management goal. “When we put this land into CRP,” he said, “I told them my intention was, when it comes out, to utilize it for grazing for cattle, and I wanted to use it to benefit the wildlife. I think there’s room for both responsible grazing and for wildlife like prairie-chickens.”

LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners for voluntary conservation practices like prescribed grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire. Photo: Stan Bradbury

Many ranchers share Abell’s vision. CRP currently enrolls more than 4.8 million acres of land within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. But CRP acreage only offers habitat for prairie-chickens and other grassland wildlife as long as it remains grassland. Once a CRP contract expires, that grassland habitat can disappear if it’s more economically viable for the landowner to return the land to crops than to maintain the grassland for grazing.

The infrastructure needed to make the shift to grazing—perimeter fencing, water development, and such—can be prohibitively expensive for private landowners. LPCI helps landowners over that transitional hurdle by providing assistance with grazing management planning and grazing infrastructure, and by offering technical and financial support for forage- and habitat-boosting practices like prescribed fire.

“It’s a win-win for ranchers and chickens,” said Christian Hagen, science advisor to LPCI. “By helping ranchers transition what was once marginal cropland to grazing after CRP contracts expire, we’re helping to maintain viable habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken while supporting the sustainability of working lands and rural economies.”

Rancher Dwight Abell stands by his CRP fields, Kansas. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Abell agrees. “Raising cattle has made us more money every year than farming has—we’re able to keep more,” he said. “I’m 100% committed—I’m not going to tear this [grassland] out. It just works better for our operation to have cattle and grass.”

That economic viability allows for the family’s ranching legacy to continue into the next generation. “Our two boys have talked about wanting to do this too,” Abell said. “They like the lifestyle. They like seeing the cows, the grass—the benefits of living out here.”

From CRP to Grazing—Details on How to Make the Shift

When CRP acres near the end of their 10- to 15-year contract, a rancher can apply to enroll the acreage in another CRP program, like the CRP Grasslands program and the CRP State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program. Each of these CRP programs has limitations—the CRP Grasslands program is aimed at livestock operations with fewer than 100 head of cattle and enrollment is capped at 200 acres. SAFE contracts only permit grazing one out of every three years over the life of the contract. The contracts for both programs run from 10 to 15 years.

Through LPCI, ranchers can access assistance for grazing planning, water development and other infrastructure, prescribed fire, and other conservation practices through three-year contracts with the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In some states, funding for perimeter fencing may also be available through EQIP.

Jordan Menge, LPCI Range Coordinator, notes that, for states within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Action Area (portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico), a certain amount of EQIP funding is set aside specifically for projects that benefit lesser prairie-chicken habitat.

“LPCI funds are available to those producers that are in a focal or connectivity zone within Lesser Prairie Chicken action area or there are known leks within a .5 mile of their property,” said Menge.

Landowners interested in taking part in and LPCI contract to help transition their CRP acreage to grazing should contact their local NRCS field office. A range conservationist can then visit one-on-one with the landowner and discuss assistance options available through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.

What’s in it for My Operation?

LPCI funding helps ranchers bring expired CRP grasslands into grazing production. LPCI and NRCS field staff work one-on-one with ranchers to develop a grazing plan and identify conservation practices and infrastructure that will bring the greatest benefit to ranch operations and lesser prairie-chicken habitat.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Texas Ranchers Gather for How-to on Wildlife-Friendly Grasslands

By Quenna Terry, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

When farmers and ranchers take time out of their busy schedules to attend a meeting, you can bet the topic’s compelling. For more than 40 agricultural producers who gathered recently at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the day’s topic was managing rangelands to improve wildlife habitat.

More than 40 farmers and ranchers attended the Landowner Wildlife Workshop at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo: Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS

Jordan Menge, range coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), organized the workshop. His cast of presenters drew from the many agencies and organizations that share the goal of conserving native wildlife and rural agriculture, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Quail and Pheasants Forever, Blackwater Valley Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Many of those organizations offer assistance to ranchers to carry out habitat conservation, and the presenters showed how the available programs help ranchers manage range to benefit both wildlife and livestock.

Dr. Blake Grisham from Texas Tech University opened the workshop by sharing the life history and management of the lesser prairie chicken, drawing from research from the panhandle region. Lesser prairie-chicken populations need large tracts of high-quality prairie to survive and reproduce. Biologists consider the lesser prairie-chicken to be an “umbrella species” for habitat conservation because when habitat is optimal for this bird, they benefit countless other members of the Southern Great Plains.

Grisham explained that research still hasn’t fully determined all of the factors contributing to lesser prairie-chicken population declines, but that studies show that habitat fragmentation plays a key role. The additional of vertical structures to the prairie landscape—both in the form of tree encroachment and built structures—adds to that fragmentation. Grisham noted that research will continue to inform our understanding of the most effective management practices for lesser prairie-chicken habitat.  He credited NRCS and its LPCI partnership for supporting his research.

Prescribed fire is an important management tool for improving grasslands for bird and herd. Photo shoes recently burned grasslands at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Quenna Terry, USA-NRCS

NRCS Range Management Specialist Stan Bradbury then shifted the conversation to the practice of prescribed grazing. He emphasized the importance of understanding plant growth, and discussed ways to provide nesting cover for prairie-chickens and other ground-nesting birds through grazing deferment.

Bradbury described how range managers can influence grassland habitat through their choice of where to locate water development, salt and minerals, and fences. Careful planning can help change the composition of plant communities and promote better grazing distribution and utilization.

Bradbury noted how grazing plans are tailored to the particular needs and characteristics of each ranch. “There isn’t a standard grazing system that works for everyone,” Bradbury said. He stressed that careful planning and preparation for drought is an essential part of grazing operations. “Drought plans need to be developed when it’s raining straight down.”

Jordan Menge described ways to improve quail habitat, stressing that, like prairie-chickens, both bobwhite and scaled quail do better in native grasses rather than monocultures. Richard Baker from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out the day with an introduction to prescribed burning as an effective tool for improving grassland health.

Jordan Menge, range coordinator for the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, organized the Landowner Wildlife Workshop and presented on improving quail habitat. Photo: Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS

To accomplish grassland habitat improvements, landowners can take part in a variety of voluntary programs that offer technical and financial assistance. Since the array of programs can be confusing, representatives from each of the assistance agencies described the particular niche of their programs.

NRCS District Conservationist Angel Garcia described NRCS programs, like the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which landowners can take part in to carry out prescribed grazing, drought planning, prescribed fire, woody plant removal, and other practices beneficial to wildlife habitat. For landowners within the active range of the lesser prairie-chicken, additional NRCS funds are available through LPCI.

Ryan Jones from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) discussed programs available through his organization, and Farm Service Agency Executive Director Mark Tucker shared information on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE).  Don Call of Texas Parks and Wildlife described the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative.

Farmer and rancher Jerry Don Glover, past chairman of the state FSA committee, attended the program.  Glover commented this was one of the best wildlife programs he had been to in a while, stating, “I came to the program because I’ve always been interested in how we can increase wildlife on our land, particularly for pheasant and quail.”

For more information about conservation assistance programs for improving wildlife habitat, contact your local NRCS office at the USDA Service center in your county.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

New Kansas Conservation Easement Protects Lesser Prairie-chickens

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has finalized permanent conservation agreements with three private landowners to conserve 3,682 acres of high-quality lesser prairie-chicken habitat in northwestern Kansas.

“These are the first easements obtained by WAFWA in the shortgrass ecoregion as called for by the Lesser Prairie-chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan,” said Brad Odle, WAFWA’s regional biologist, who worked closely with the landowners to secure the easement.

“We applaud these visionary landowners who are protecting and conserving the landscape as a working ranch that will be enjoyed by future generations. It offers habitat for a whole host of wildlife species, including the lesser prairie-chicken. This is another positive step toward establishing a stronghold for lesser prairie-chicken in this area.”

A stronghold is defined in the range-wide plan as a block of fairly contiguous grassland consisting of at least 25,000 acres that contains at least six active lek sites (mating display grounds). There must also be assurances that all the properties contributing to a stronghold will be protected from future development and managed in a way that is beneficial to lesser prairie-chickens into the future.

The newly conserved grasslands are in close proximity to the 17,290-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (Photo: TNC).

The complex of newly conserved properties is located near the Smoky Valley Ranch, which is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The 17,290-acre ranch is identified in the range-wide plan as a potential focal point around which a stronghold could be established.

With additional easements like the ones just finalized, the Smoky Valley Ranch and nearby permanently conserved properties could become a stronghold for the species.

The permanent conservation easements on the private properties were purchased by WAFWA and will be held and monitored by The Nature Conservancy. The easements restrict future development and activities that would be detrimental to the bird’s habitat. All other property rights associated with the land will be retained by the private landowner.

WAFWA, a key partner within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), has also established an endowment that will provide the landowners with sufficient annual payments to implement a lesser prairie-chicken conservation plan in perpetuity. The primary conservation practice that will be implemented is prescribed grazing, which will be used to maintain sufficient vegetative structure for every phase of the lesser prairie-chicken life cycle. This transaction not only permanently protects key prairie habitat, but also ensures that the properties will remain a working ranch.

“There’s probably no better approach to long-term conservation than a mutually beneficial partnership,” said Matt Bain, Western Kansas Conservation Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s been an honor for the us to be a part of this and help these landowners achieve their long-term vision for their ranch.”

The range-wide plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA; the state wildlife agencies of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and many non-government conservation organizations. It was developed to conserve lesser prairie-chicken populations by providing another voluntary conservation program for landowner and industry cooperation and improving coordination between state and federal conservation agencies.

Funding for WAFWA’s conservation efforts comes from voluntary mitigation payments by industry partners that are enrolled in the range-wide plan. The plan provides certainty to participants that they will be able to continue operations without interruption.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Fire + Grazing Reduces Wildfire Fuels, Helps Prairie-Chickens, New Research Shows

In 2017, massive wildfires roared over the southern Great Plains, scorching more than 750,000 acres in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Though wildfires are a natural part of life on the Great Plains, more than a century of fire suppression has set the stage for catastrophic wildfires that have caused unprecedented losses to human life, property, livestock, and wildlife in recent years. How can we effectively reduce wildfire risk? New research shows that by pairing prescribed fire with grazing, range managers significantly reduce wildfire fuels.

The fire-grazing treatment—known as pyric herbivory, or, more commonly, patch-burning—also produces the mosaic of diverse grassland habitat that’s just right for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife.

Read the new research report

In the spring of 2016, a wildfire scorched more than 400,000 acres in Kansas alone, making it the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Until 2017, that is. A massive wildfire in March burned 650,000 acres in Kansas. (photo: Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News via AP)

On the Great Plains, wildfires are three times more frequent and four times bigger than they were thirty years ago. Some of the biggest increases in both size and frequency have occurred in the southern Great Plains. That’s an immense problem for both people and wildlife.

Led by Dr. Dwayne Elmore of Oklahoma State University, the research team studied the effects of management that used prescribed fire alone (no grazing) versus management that used a combination of fire and grazing known as pyric herbivory, or patch-burn grazing.

What is patch-burning?

Patch-burning mimics the natural duo of forces—fire and grazing—that together shaped prairie-habitat for thousands of years. Ignited by lightning and by native tribes, fire killed encroaching woody plants and prompted the vigorous re-sprouting and germination of native prairie vegetation. This succulent new growth, high in protein-rich forbs, attracted herds of large herbivores, which intensively grazed the recently burned area. The resulting habitat was a mosaic of newly burned areas scattered among grassland patches of varied ages since burning.

Ranchers mimic this process by burning portions of a pasture each year. Livestock are naturally drawn to focus grazing on the tender new growth.

This dynamic tag-team of patchy fire and grazing yields far-reaching benefits to the land—improved soil health and nutrient cycling, increased native plant and wildlife diversity, reduced invasive plants, reduced fuels for wildfire, increased drought resilience, and increased carbon sequestration.

Cattle on the Hashknife Ranch in Kansas graze a section of pasture burned just a few days earlier.

These changes, in turn, yield greater production of higher quality forage for livestock. Previous studies have already shown that patch burning increases overall biodiversity, and that diverse vegetation within a pasture produces greater stability in annual weight gain for cattle.

Why is patch-burning good for prairie-chickens? They need the kind of structurally diverse grassland habitat that patchy fire followed by grazing produces. Lesser prairie-chickens use areas with low-growing vegetation for lekking, tall and dense vegetation for nesting cover, and moderate height vegetation with lots of protein-packed invertebrates (which are known to increase in diversity and abundance following fire) for brooding rearing.

To both benefit prairie-chickens and reduce fire danger, management practices must promote structural diversity and reduce fire behavior characteristics—namely flame length and rate of spread.

What the research found

Patch-burn grazing (pyric herbivory) creates a mosaic of grassland habitat of various ages, density, height, and biodiversity–great for cattle and for lesser prairie-chickens.

The research team’s study shows that prescribed fire alone has limited utility in reducing fuel build-up, since the plant biomass quickly rebuilds in the absence of grazing. On its own, prescribed fire would need to be performed annually to keep the fuel load down. That fire frequency would reduce biodiversity, creating a uniform grassland landscape that lacks the kind of structural and species diversity that lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife need.

The team found that patch-burn grazing, however, significantly reduced flame lengths and rates of fire spread for an extended period of time. Moreover, subtle changes in weather from day to night—like reduced wind speed and increased fuel moisture—created more significant reductions in flame heights in patch-burned treatments.

The study showed that sites treated with a combination of fire and grazing achieved greater fuels reduction than fire-only sites. Moreover, sites treated with both fire and grazing created the vegetative structure and species mix that best suit prairie-chickens.

Male lesser prairie-chicken performs his mating display on a lek burned three days earlier on the Hashknife Ranch in Kansas, where rancher Ed Koger has practiced patch-burn grazing for many years.

The take-home for management? Don’t defer grazing on burned areas. As the study puts it, “We add to the evidence that deferment of grazing after fire is not warranted, at least in highly productive rangelands, such as those found in the southern Great Plains.”

“Given the reductions in rates of fire spread, we suggest pyric herbivory [patch-burning] could, if implemented at a landscape scale, result in lower area burned by wildfires in the southern Great Plains.”

That’s mighty welcome news in a fire-prone landscape.

Research and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped fund this research. That’s because research studies like this one help ensure that we’re encouraging the right actions in the right places to benefit prairie-chickens. That way, we can strategically direct funds to the places and practices that will yield the greatest conservation return on investment.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

Final Report Released on 2017 Lesser Prairie-Chicken Aerial Survey

Since 2012, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has overseen an annual aerial survey to estimate the lesser prairie-chicken population across its range in the southern Great Plains. While the initial results were released in June, the aerial survey team has just released its final report detailing the survey results.

The report looks at this year’s survey findings within the context of the last six years of survey data. Over time, the data will provide important insights about population trends of this grassland-dependent bird.

According to the report, researchers estimated the total population size of lesser prairie-chickens to be:

  • 37,108 birds in 2012;
  • 19,471 in 2013;
  • 23,064 in 2014;
  • 28,875 in 2015;
  • 24,779 in 2016; and
  • 33,269 in 2017.

The research team also estimated a 55% increase in the density and abundance of leks (springtime courtship display and mating grounds) in 2017 relative to 2016.

Over the past six years, they estimated the abundance of lesser prairie-chicken leks to be:

  • 3,470 in 2012;
  • 2,228 in 2013;
  • 2,719 in 2014;
  • 1,713 in 2015;
  • 2,053 in 2016; and
  • 3,186 in 2017

Read the full report on our website. 

Healthy, high-quality habitat is the key to lesser prairie-chicken survival and success. With 95% of the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat on private land, the management practices of private landowners have a tremendous impact on the bird’s population. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is all about helping private landowners access technical and financial assistance for voluntary conserve practices that maintain and improve grassland habitat.

During the six-year survey period, the southern Great Plains have experienced significant drought and wildfire. In spite of this, the survey data reveal that population numbers have remained stable.

LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen pointed to the conservation efforts of private landowners as a key factor in that stability. “To show stable populations in the wake of drought and fire, I believe, speaks volumes about the continued conservation efforts occurring across throughout their distribution range,” Hagen said.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

New Conservation Agreements Protect Lesser Prairie-Chicken Habitat

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has finalized permanent conservation agreements with a private landowner to conserve 968 acres of high-quality lesser prairie-chicken habitat in south-central Kansas. In addition, a 160-acre tract owned by another private landowner that is managed with the property will be protected under a 10-year conservation agreement finalized last week. These two tracts of land are immediately adjacent to a 1,781-acre tract which was placed under a permanent conservation agreement earlier this year.

Male lesser prairie-chicken. Photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

The conserved acreage is all native rangeland currently being managed for livestock production, and this historical use will continue. The permanent conservation easement on the 968-acre tract was purchased by WAFWA and will be held and monitored by Pheasants Forever. Both WAFWA and Pheasants Forever are key partner organizations within the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), helping bring about strategic actions that benefit both lesser prairie-chickens and the private landowners that steward their habitat.

“Thanks to conservation-minded landowners, we now have a complex of 2,909 acres being managed with the needs of the lesser prairie-chicken in mind,” said Roger Wolfe, WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Program Manager.  “The ranch is in very good condition due to a long history of good management and there are two active leks on the property.”

The conservation easement restricts future development and activities that would be detrimental to the habitat for the bird. The private landowner will retain all other property rights associated with historical use of the land.

WAFWA has also established an endowment that will provide the landowner with sufficient payments to implement a lesser prairie-chicken conservation plan in perpetuity. This transaction not only permanently protects key prairie habitat, but also ensures that this property will remain a working cattle ranch.

“Pheasants Forever is proud to partner with WAFWA and the private landowners to complete this voluntary conservation easement,” said Jordan Martincich, Director of Development for Pheasants Forever. “The conservation values associated with this project will have a positive impact on wildlife habitat for future generations.  We hope other landowners will partner with Pheasants Forever and WAFWA to perpetually protect their working lands for the benefit of wildlife and the benefit of the ranching community.”

Conservation easements are an important conservation strategy within the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan, a collaborative effort of WAFWA and the state wildlife agencies of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The plan was developed to ensure conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken by providing a mechanism for voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry and improving coordination between state and federal conservation agencies.

Male lesser prairie-chicken. Photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Funding for WAFWA’s conservation efforts comes from voluntary mitigation payments by industry partners that are enrolled in the plan. The plan allows agriculture producers and industry to continue operations while reducing impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat.

WAFWA’s conservation easements are just one of several conservation assistance programs available to landowners within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. LPCI’s Conservation Assistance Program brochure includes a table that summarizes several available programs. Contact your local NRCS field office to learn more.

Landowners interested in participating in one of the short-term, long-term or permanent conservation options available under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan should contact Roger Wolfe at roger.wolfe@wafwa.org.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

USDA Releases Five-Year Strategy to Boost Forest Health and Help Golden-winged Warbler

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has just released a new five-year conservation strategy to support private landowners managing for healthier forests in the Appalachian Mountains, part of an ongoing effort to help the golden-winged warbler rebound, and avoid the need for regulation of the species. This strategy serves as a game plan for how USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its conservation partners can best meet their goal of helping landowners adopt bird-friendly practices on more than 15,000 acres of young forests and shrublands over the next five years.

The golden-winged warbler has suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird species in the last 45 years, largely attributed to the decline of young forests that the migratory bird needs for nesting.

In 2012, NRCS selected seven priority species for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), a science-based partnership for wildlife conservation.  Those species include lesser prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse, gopher tortoise, New England cottontail, southern willow flycatcher, bog turtle, and golden-winged warbler. More recently, NRCS added the monarch butterfly to its list of priority species.

With a black-and white facial pattern and touches of yellow on its wings and head, the golden-winged warbler breeds in the deciduous forests of the Great Lakes and Appalachians and then spends its winters in Latin America.

Appalachian forests have widely suffered from “high grade” or “diameter limit” harvests that remove only the most valuable trees. NRCS forest conservation practices renew the economic and wildlife values of deciduous forests. With about 70 percent of the region under private ownership, management decisions of landowners are important to the golden-winged warbler and many game species including turkey, deer and grouse.

“Many of our nation’s forests have fallen into poor health, and we have a tremendous opportunity in Appalachia to make a difference both for landowners and for wildlife,” NRCS Acting Chief Leonard Jordan said. “Our effort is to diversify the age classes of trees in forests, creating patches of forests of different ages, and for the golden-winged warbler, we’re focusing on those younger forests within landscapes dominated by mature forests.”

Research shows the conservation practices are benefiting the golden-winged warbler. The largest assessment of its kind is now underway, and the first three years of data show high nesting success in forests managed using NRCS practices.

This strategy provides guidance on how and where the agency will work with landowners to address habitat loss. It relies on new priority areas for conservation, which were developed last fall with support from American Bird Conservancy and assessment data from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University and other partners. These priority areas use population, forest cover and land use data to direct conservation actions to key areas across the seven-state range.

For WLFW, NRCS targets conservation in Appalachia, which lost 43 percent of its young forest habitat since the 1960s. From 2012 to 2016, landowners have restored more than 13,000 acres of habitat through WLFW partnerships.

Through Farm Bill conservation programs, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help landowners voluntarily plan and implement forestry practices that restore and enhance young forest habitat.

Historically, natural disturbances like wildfires created patches of young forests. Nowa­days, people largely control these natural processes to protect life and property. Through conservation practices, landowners are able to mimic those natural disturbances.

Practices include brush management, creation of conservation cover, early successional habitat development and management, herbaceous weed control and prescribed burning.

Research shows the conservation practices are benefiting the golden-winged warbler. The largest assessment of its kind is now underway, and the first three years of data show high nesting success in forests managed using NRCS practices.

WLFW and other partnership efforts to promote habitat restoration on private and public lands are working. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined protections under the Endangered Species Act were not needed for the New England cottontail and greater sage-grouse, both WLFW target species, largely because of collaborative efforts to conserve habitat on public and private lands. Other successes include the Oregon chub, Arctic grayling, greater sage-grouse, Bi-State sage-grouse and Louisiana black bear.

To learn more about assistance opportunities, landowners should contact their local USDA service center or visit the Conservation Choices for Wildlife – Golden-winged Warbler webpage for more information on available practices.


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

 New Video Shows how LPC Range-wide Plan Works For Wildlife and Landowners

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has released a new video demonstrating how the mitigation program in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan is successfully conserving habitat for this iconic grassland bird. The video documents work being done on a West Texas ranch that is being funded by industry participation in the plan.

The video was produced through a partnership between WAFWA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, and Pheasants Forever.

Watch the video.

The Range-wide Conservation Plan allows industry to continue operations while reducing and mitigating impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat. Industry contributions support conservation actions implemented by participating private landowners. Pioneer Natural Resources is one of more than 160 companies that are enrolled in the plan.

“Pioneer jumped into this program because it gives us the ability to control our own fate,” said Pioneer VP Legal and Chief Compliance Office Ron Schindler, who appears in the video. “We were able to voluntarily jump in and do some things that would allow us to have some predictability with our future. WAFWA’s expertise helps us select places for production that are less impactful to the chicken first, and on places where we just can’t avoid them, WAFWA also helps us with designs and offsets so that if we impact the chicken in a particular place they get double the habitat elsewhere.”

Randy Beasley’s ranch in Yoakum County in West Texas is a textbook example of how the plan is improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat. Beasley’s ranch has been in his family since 1941. He recalls a time before mesquite invaded the landscape, when lesser prairie-chickens abounded. WAFWA entered into a 10-year contract with Beasley to improve habitat on 15,457 acres of his ranch.

Beasley is implementing a conservation plan developed by WAFWA to increase native grass production and reduce the proliferation of mesquite and shinnery oak. Mesquite and shinnery oak are native plants but their abundance has increased dramatically since historic times due to fire suppression and intensive grazing. Dense stands of these woody plants suppress native grasses, which provide important habitat for the bird as well as forage for livestock.

Recent research shows that lesser prairie-chickens strongly avoid mesquite plants, likely due to their vertical structure. Ideal habitat for prairie-chickens in this region consists of a diverse community of native grasses, forbs, and low shrubs like shinnery oak. Since the contract was initiated in March 2015, more than 2,800 acres of mesquite have been mechanically removed with another 2,400 acres slated for removal. In addition, more than 7,500 acres of shinnery oak has been chemically suppressed.

WAFWA biologists are now working with Beasley to reintroduce fire to portions of the ranch so that the benefits of these restoration practices will be maintained into the future. WAFWA biologists have documented lesser prairie-chickens on the ranch and expect the birds to soon reoccupy areas where recent restoration work has occurred.

“Since we’ve started this wildlife program, we’re starting to see grass grow and we’re seeing chickens again like we did in the past,” Beasley said in the video. “It’s one of those things that is good for us financially. It has been good for the land, for the cattle, and it has been a dream come true.”

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan is a collaborative effort of WAFWA and the five state wildlife agencies where the birds are found: Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. The plan was developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry. To date, industry partners have committed over $63 million in enrollment and mitigation fees to pay for conservation actions, and landowners across the range have agreed to conserve over 145,000 acres of habitat through 10-year and permanent conservation agreements.

“It is encouraging to see the progress we’ve made in just a few short years,” said J.D. Strong, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and Chairman of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Council. “This new video underscores how private landowners and industry support are making a difference for the long-term survival of the lesser prairie-chicken. Industry and landowner support for conservation efforts are critically important right now as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving through the process to determine if the bird warrants being listed again under the Endangered Species Act. We applaud the participation of landowners and industry who care about the future of this species.”

WAFWA video HERE 

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan can be found HERE

Aerial Surveys Confirm Lesser Prairie-Chicken Population Holding Steady

Results are in for the 2017 lesser prairie-chicken aerial survey, and they’ve brought welcome news. The survey indicates an estimated breeding population of 33,269 birds this year, up from 24,648 birds counted last year. Though scientists are encouraged by the numbers, they know that year-to-year fluctuations are the norm with upland birds like the lesser prairie-chicken.

Male lesser prairie-chicken flying from a Kansas lek. Photo David Haukos.

“The survey results indicate a 34% increase in the number of birds, but we don’t read too much into short-term population fluctuations,” explained Roger Wolfe, Lesser Prairie-chicken Program Manager for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), the organization that oversees the survey.

“The monitoring technique used for this survey is designed to track trends, which more accurately reflect the amount of available habitat and population stability,” said Wolfe. “The bottom line is that the population trend over the last five years indicates a stable population, which is good news for all involved in lesser prairie-chicken conservation efforts.”

Manuel DeLeon, acting coordinator of the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), welcomed the news, noting the essential nature of partnership and collaboration in the process of recovering lesser prairie-chicken populations.

“Moving forward depends on all the collective efforts undertaken to maintain and improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat,” said DeLeon. “LPCI is one cog in the wheel working to help ranchers improve their operations while also improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat.”

LPCI partners with WAFWA to carry out habitat conservation to meet the population recovery goals of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan, which was developed to ensure long-term viability of the lesser prairie-chicken through voluntary cooperation by landowners and industry.

Lesser prairie-chickens inhabit four ecoregions in the southern Great Plains, including portions of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Their populations regularly fluctuate up and down from year to year due to changes in habitat conditions, mainly influenced by weather patterns. The surveys this year indicated apparent population increases in three of the four ecoregions, with an apparent decrease estimated in the fourth ecoregion.

Lesser prairie-chicken nest with hatched eggs. Photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

The short-grass prairie ecoregion of northwest Kansas saw the biggest apparent annual increase in birds, followed by the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion of the northeast Panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and south-central Kansas. The sand sagebrush ecoregion of southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas also registered an apparent annual increase in the number of breeding birds. An apparent annual population decline was noted in the shinnery oak ecoregion of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.

LPCI science advisor Christian Hagen noted that the trends are encouraging, especially on the heels of the extreme drought of 2012-13 and the mega-wildfires that have blazed across hundreds of thousands of acres of prairie-chicken habitat during the past two years.

“While the fire will help the prairies and lesser prairie-chickens in the long run by removing and reducing eastern redcedar, the short term post-fire effects are not well understood,” said Hagen. “To show stable populations in the wake of drought and fire, I believe, speaks volumes about the continued conservation efforts occurring across throughout their distribution range.”

Wolfe noted that, like all wildlife, the health of lesser prairie-chickens is greatly affected by the weather. “The aerial surveys this year were taken before the late spring snowstorm blasted through much of the bird’s range, just prior to the peak of nest incubation,” said Wolfe. “We’ll know more about the impact of that weather event after aerial surveys are completed next year.”


The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.