Category Archives: LPCI Press Releases

New LPCI Field Staffer Helps Landowners Help the Land in Colorado

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative connects rural landowners with technical and financial assistance to identify and carry out conservation practices that benefit prairie-chickens while maintaining ranch sustainability. The success of our efforts hinges on our field staff members, who work one-on-one with landowners. Meet our newest field staffer, Marina Osier.

 

“We can have good habitat and good rangeland production—they go hand in hand.” That’s the bottom line for Marina Osier, wildlife biologist with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT).

Osier is the newest member of LPCI ‘s field staff team, based in Lamar, Colorado, on the western edge of the lesser prairie-chicken’s range. Like her teammates in other parts of the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, she’s an essential part of LPCI’s mission to conserve and increase lesser prairie-chicken populations by promoting the health of grazing lands and supporting the long-term sustainability of agricultural operations.

With some 95% of all of lesser prairie-chicken habitat in private hands, the future of this uncommon prairie grouse depends on careful stewardship by private landowners. Fortunately, Osier notes, the conservation practices that benefit prairie-chickens also benefit the rural agricultural producers—ranchers and farmers—who own much of that private land.

“People want to help the lesser prairie-chicken and other wildlife,” she says. “They just don’t want to be locked into something they don’t want to do long-term.” Osier works with interested landowners to explore the range of voluntary conservation assistance available to them and identify programs that will work best for their particular situation.

Part of her work, Osier says, is to clear up misconceptions about the assistance programs. “Some people think we’re going to put chickens on their land and make them take the cows off.”

LPCI field staffer assesses vegetation during conservation planning process.

When a landowner opts to take part in an LPCI technical and financial assistance program and their land meets the criteria for participation, one of the first things Osier does is to assess the diversity, abundance, and health of the ranch’s grassland habitat.

She uses this information to create a conservation plan tailored to the rancher’s goals—one that maximizes benefits to both prairie-chicken and livestock. The plan identifies management practices—like prescribed grazing, woody invasives removal, drought contingency planning, and water system improvements—that help build the health and resiliency of the land. LPCI financial assistance helps ranchers carry out those often-costly management practices.

“I love working with landowners, hearing their stories, and hearing the history they have with the land,” says Osier. “My aim is to find common ground, through actions that preserve their way of life while preserving habitat.”

Osier’s interest in prairie wildlife has its roots in the Iowa soil of her childhood. “My dad was very interested in wildlife, and we’d talk about the birds, trees, and animals,” Osier says.

After graduating from Iowa State University with a forestry degree, she got a summer job looking at habitat for greater prairie-chickens. “I hadn’t heard of prairie-chickens before that job!”

Not long after Osier completed her master’s degree in Georgia, the LPCI SWAT position opened in Lamar, shifting Osier’s focus to the lesser prairie-chicken. In her new role, Osier aims to build connection and conversation with area landowners. “I want to talk with them about chickens—why they’re worth conserving, and how the range improvements that help chickens help their ranch’s productivity.”

Great to have you on the LPCI team, Marina!

New Mexico Range Managers Put Science to Work for Prairie-Chickens

Science-based conservation that benefits wildlife and landowners—that’s what the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) is all about. Over the past few years, LPCI—a partnership led by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service—has helped fund research projects across the southern Great Plains, aimed at better understanding lesser prairie-chicken ecology in order to fine-tune conservation practices.

For wildlife biologist Randy Howard, a new mapping tool developed by lesser prairie-chicken researchers is an essential part of his efforts to restore habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife.

Wildlife biologist Randy Howard adjusts the float system on a wildlife tank at the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Ranch in New Mexico.

Howard oversees habitat management at the Bureau of Land Management’s Sand Ranch, a 58,600-acre parcel of land 35 miles east of Roswell, New Mexico. Designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Sand Ranch is specifically managed as habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken.

Howard’s toolbox of conservation practices got major boost with the advent of a digital mapping tool that shows with unprecedented detail the extent and density of woody encroachment on prairie habitat in the southern Great Plains. In New Mexico, most woody encroachment comes from a single species—honey mesquite.

“That mapping layer has been awesome for our planning purposes,” Howard said. “Whenever we’re looking at mesquite treatment, we’re using that layer,” In digital mapping, data is organized in “layers” of information, with each layer relating to a particular land feature.

The effectiveness of the new mapping layer is compounded by another ground-breaking study by a research team under the direction of Dr. Scott Carleton of New Mexico State University. The study is the first to quantify the effects of mesquite on lesser prairie-chicken habitat use. Researchers found that lesser prairie-chickens strongly prefer sites with less than 1% mesquite canopy cover and rarely use sites with more than 15% canopy cover.

Results from that study suggest that removing mesquite in low-density (<15% canopy cover) is essential to maintaining or expanding existing habitat and reducing the threat of habitat loss.

When mesquite moves into prairie grasslands, lesser prairie-chickens move out. Photo: Charles Dixon.

Both Carleton’s research and the mapping tool development were funded in part by the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). According to LPCI Science Advisor Christian Hagen, the targeted habitat restoration work underway in New Mexico is a great example of “actionable science.”

“This is the interface of research and management, where conservationists identify, fund, and implement habitat restoration in areas that will have the greatest biological effect for prairie-chickens and other prairie-obligate species,” said Hagen.

Howard noted the tangible impacts of this scientific research on his habitat restoration efforts.  “This mapping layer, along with Carlton’s research, shifted our thinking to prioritizing treatment of low-density mesquite,” said Howard.

This past year, Howard used the mapping tool to select three leks on Sand Ranch for mesquite treatment. “With the mapping layer, you can really see which leks need immediate attention and where you still have time [to do treatment at a later date].”

Leks are critical habitat sites, where male lesser prairie-chickens gather each spring to perform mating displays, spar with other males, and mate with females. Nesting often occurs within a short distance of the lek site.

Howard’s crew treated all mesquite within a ½-mile-wide perimeter around the three leks. Because the mesquite was low-density, the crew was able to hand-spray it using backpack sprayers.

The next, essential step in restoring that habitat for prairie-chickens will be to remove the dead mesquite carcasses, but that can’t be done for three years, since it takes that long for the mesquite plant’s extensive root system to die.

A tree masticator chews up dead mesquite skeletons, eliminating their vertical structure, which repels lesser prairie-chickens.

In the meantime, Howard will be complete treatment of three other sites at Sand Ranch that were hand-sprayed three years ago. They’ll bring in tree masticators to grind up the mesquite carcasses, using funding from the non-profit Center of Excellence, which supports habitat conservation projects for two species of concern in New Mexico—the lesser prairie-chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard.

Howard recently received a $677,000 grant from the Center of Excellence, which he will use to treat 10 priority lek sites across eastern New Mexico. The mapping layer figured prominently in the process of selecting the leks. Biologists from LPCI, US Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Game and Fish, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Center of Excellence, and BLM examined the mapping data and made their recommendations.

In addition to helping range managers identify priority mesquite treatment areas, the mapping layer helps in linking core habitat areas. “Using that mapping layer, we’re able to look at the big picture of habitat management, and we can see where we can connect lek sites with one another,” Howard said.

For example, he said, with the three lek sites they just treated on Sand Ranch, the southernmost lek is separated from the other leks by just ten miles. But because there’s a big swath of mesquite in those 10 miles, the southern lek is effectively isolated.

The mapping tool allows Howard to see where to create effective connectivity corridors. “We can blow a path through that mesquite with aerial spraying and follow up with masticators.”

The resulting mesquite-free habitat won’t just benefit lesser prairie-chickens—it will benefit all grassland-dependent wildlife and the livestock that graze there.


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.

Rangeland Science Journal Publishes Special Issue On Woody Plant Encroachment

Tune in on January 31 for free live-streaming from a symposium on the latest research on the effects of woody encroachment on at-risk grouse in the West!

What do America’s prairies and sagebrush have in common? Grouse, for one. And woody plant invasion, for another.

Species like juniper, pinyon pine, redcedar and mesquite are encroaching onto these landscapes to the detriment of  lesser prairie-chickens and sage grouse, as well as hundreds of other species that depend on healthy, intact rangelands—including people.

The January 2017 issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management is dedicated to research on woodland expansion in the West’s sagebrush and grassland ecosystems. All articles are freely available for viewing.

This month, the Society for Range Management’s scientific journal, Rangeland Ecology & Management (REM), released a special issue focused entirely on this landscape-level threat. Fifteen new research papers, all available for free to the public (see research paper list and links below), describe the impacts of the woody invasion of western rangelands. The research also evaluates habitat restoration using grouse as focal species—the greater sage-grouse in sagebrush country and the lesser prairie-chicken in the southern Great Plains.

For the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, removing these encroaching woody plants has long been a conservation priority through its Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). Since 2010, LPCI has partnered with hundreds of ranchers to remove redcedar and mesquite, restoring rangelands and core habitat for lesser prairie-chickens.

Fires once kept native conifers from expanding into the Great Plains. In the last 150 years, redcedar and mesquite  have spread rapidly across rangeland, pushing prairie-chickens out of their grassland habitat.

Research articles in the January special issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management quantify the extent to which lesser prairie-chickens avoid both redcedar (above) and honey mesquite. Just one redcedar per acre is enough to deter lesser prairie-chicken nesting.

Conifers crowd out native perennial grasses and forbs, decreasing the productivity and richness of the range. If unchecked, the spread of woody plants can reduce the availability of water, food, and cover for grouse and livestock. Plus, woodland expansion increases the risk of soil erosion, invasive weeds, and high-intensity wildfires.

The new issue of REM presents cutting-edge research that will help managers and landowners fine-tune practices that address woody encroachment in both western sagebrush and southern Great Plains habitats, benefiting the wildlife and agricultural producers who depend on these rangelands.

The articles in this special issue cover a broad range of topics, including new mapping tools for effectively targeting conifer removal projects; the impact of mesquite and redcedar encroachment on lesser prairie-chicken habitat occupancy; and the effects of tree removal on sage grouse brood survival, songbird abundance, and ecosystem water availability.

Woody plant encroachment affects habitat for both lesser prairie-chicken (which inhabit the 4 eco-regions in the lower right of this map) and greater sage-grouse (all other denoted ecoregions).

To ensure this research reaches the broadest possible audience, SGI and LPCI have produced several Science to Solutions based on studies published in the latest REM issue. These brief articles summarize key findings and their implications for range management. Stay tuned as we release more Science to Solutions papers this month on the impacts of woody encroachment!

We’re also excited to announce that the research presented in this REM special issue will be the focus of a full-day symposium on January 31 at the upcoming Society for Range Management conference. This symposium will feature 20 short presentations by many of the authors listed below.

And thanks to funding from the Bureau of Land Management, the symposium will be open and available to everyone via live-streaming on the SGI website. Click here to learn more.

Below is a listing with links to the 15 research articles, as well as links to related Science to Solutions summaries by LPCI and SGI.

Rangeland Ecology & Management, Vol, 70. Issue 1

Woody invasion of western rangelands: Using grouse as focal species for ecosystem restoration

Click the research article titles to read the open-access papers.

Introduction and Summary

Special Issue: Targeted Woodland Removal to Recover At-Risk Grouse and Their Sagebrush-Steppe and Prairie Ecosystems by Richard F. Miller, David E. Naugle, Jeremy D. Maestas, Christian A. Hagen, Galon Hall

Woodland Expansion Threat

A Hierarchical Perspective to Woody Plant Encroachment for Conservation of Prairie-Chickens by Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, Torre J. Hovick, R. Dwayne Elmore, Ashley M. Tanner, David M. Engle, Craig A. Davis

Mapping Tree Canopy Cover in Support of Proactive Prairie Grouse Conservation in Western North America by Michael J. Falkowski, Jeffrey S. Evans, David E. Naugle, Christian A. Hagen, Scott A. Carleton, Jeremy D. Maestas, Azad Henareh Khalyani, Aaron J. Poznanovic, Andrew J. Lawrence. Stay tuned for LPCI’s Science to Solutions summary! 

Lesser Prairie Chicken Response

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Avoidance of Trees in a Grassland Landscape by Joseph M. Lautenbach, Reid T. Plumb, Samantha G. Robinson, Christian A. Hagen, David A. Haukos, James C. Pitman. Read LPCI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research!

Impacts of Mesquite Distribution on Seasonal Space Use of Lesser Prairie-Chickens by Matthew A. Boggie, Cody R. Strong, Daniel Lusk, Scott A. Carleton, William R. Gould, Randy L. Howard, Clay Nichols, Michael Falkowski, Christian Hagen. Read LPCI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research!  

Sage Grouse Response

Pinyon and Juniper Encroachment into Sagebrush Ecosystems Impacts Distribution and Survival of Greater Sage-Grouse by Peter S. Coates, Brian G. Prochazka, Mark A. Ricca, K. Ben Gustafson, Pilar Ziegler, Michael L. Casazza

Encounters with Pinyon-Juniper Influence Riskier Movements in Greater Sage-Grouse Across the Great Basin by Brian G. Prochazka, Peter S. Coates, Mark A. Ricca, Michael L. Casazza, K. Benjamin Gustafson, Josh M. Hull

Short-Term Response of Sage-Grouse Nesting to Conifer Removal in the Northern Great Basin by John P. Severson, Christian A. Hagen, Jeremy D. Maestas, David E. Naugle, J. Todd Forbes, Kerry P. Reese. Read SGI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research

Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Selection Drives Reproductive Fitness Under a Conifer Removal Strategy by Charles P. Sandford, Michel T. Kohl, Terry A. Messmer, David K. Dahlgren, Avery Cook, Brian R. Wing

Vegetation Response

Sage Grouse Groceries: Forb Response to Piñon-Juniper Treatments by Jonathan D. Bates, Kirk W. Davies, April Hulet, Richard F. Miller, Bruce Roundy

Ecosystem Water Availability  

Ecosystem Water Availability in Juniper versus Sagebrush Snow-Dominated Rangelands by Patrick R. Kormos, Danny Marks, Frederick B. Pierson, C. Jason Williams, Stuart P. Hardegree, Scott Havens, Andrew Hedrick, Jonathan D. Bates, Tony J. Svejcar. Read SGI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research

Human Dimensions and Restoration Paradigms

Conserving the Greater Sage-Grouse: A Social-Ecological Systems Case Study from the California-Nevada Region by Alison L. Duvall, Alexander L. Metcalf, Peter S. Coates

The Sage-Grouse Habitat Mortgage: Effective Conifer Management in Space and Time by Chad S. Boyd, Jay D. Kerby, Tony J. Svejcar, Jon D. Bates, Dustin D. Johnson, Kirk W. Davies

Sagebrush Songbirds Response  

Bird Responses to Removal of Western Juniper in Sagebrush-Steppe by Aaron L. Holmes, Jeremy D. Maestas, David E. Naugle

Extending Conifer Removal and Landscape Protection Strategies from Sage-Grouse to Songbirds, a Range-Wide Assessment by J. Patrick Donnelly, Jason D. Tack, Kevin E. Doherty, David E. Naugle, Brady W. Allred, Victoria J. Dreitz. Read SGI’s Science to Solutions summary of this research!

 

Science to Solutions: Mesquite Encroachment Impacts Lesser Prairie-Chickens

While scientists have long suspected that honey mesquite encroachment is a significant problem for lesser prairie-chickens in the southern portion of their range, a new study is the first to quantify its impact.

A new “Science to Solutions” report from the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) – a partnership led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – summarizes the study’s findings and management implications.

The study shows that lesser prairie-chickens strongly prefer sites with less than 1% mesquite canopy cover and rarely use habitat where cover exceeds 15%. This intense aversion is likely due to the fact that mesquite provides hiding and perching cover for predators.

Read the Science to Solutions report, “Mesquite Removal Restores Habitat for Lesser Prairie-Chickens.”

LPCI’s mesquite report is part of the NRCS Science to Solutions series, which distills the findings of emerging scientific research and identifies ways this new knowledge can help fine-tune habitat range management. It contributes to a growing body of science demonstrating the impacts of woodland expansion on native wildlife in the West.

Lesser prairie-chickens rarely use habitat where mesquite canopy cover exceeds 15%. (Photo: Charles Dixon)

NRCS uses science to target the best places and ways to work with ranchers to remove woody species and improve the health of native habitat. Since 2010, ranchers have made wildlife-friendly improvements to more than 6 million acres in the West, benefiting sage grouse and prairie chicken while improving livestock forage on privately owned working lands.

The study appears with 14 others in the latest edition of Rangeland Ecology & Management, the scientific journal of the Society for Range Management (SRM).

This special issue—which highlights cutting-edge research on the effects of woodland expansion on at-risk grouse species—is also the focus of an upcoming symposium during the SRM annual conference at the end of this month. The full-day symposium on January 31 will feature 20 presentations on the latest findings woodland expansion. The presentations will be live-streamed and free to watch on SGI’s website. (View the schedule of talks.)

Within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range, predatory birds are more abundant in prairie grasslands with mesquite cover than in open grasslands.

Latest LPCI Videos Showcase Prescribed Grazing, Redcedar Treatment

“There’s always been those numbers out there as far as stocking rate goes that have been a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants type of deal, but what NRCS’s technical support does is it brings some actual science into it.” That’s just one of the insights shared by Kansas rancher Russell Blew in a new 4-minute Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) video.

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-9-03-53-amIf a picture’s worth a thousand words, a lively short video speaks volumes. LPCI’s Prescribed Grazing video is just one of a trio of new videos LPCI will use for education outreach to landowners, partner organizations, and the public. Also complete is a video on LPCI Redcedar Removal.  In both 4-minute videos, ranchers and LPCI field staff show and describe how these range management practices work and how they benefit both ranch operations and lesser prairie-chickens. The third video, on LPCI’s mesquite removal practice, will be released shortly.

Watch the LPCI Prescribed Grazing video.

Watch the LPCI Redcedar Removal video.

These videos are available for viewing on the LPCI YouTube Channel and Facebook page, as well as our website video gallery.

Thank you to Russell Blew, Martin Moore, and the many other ranchers who were willing to take the time to share their insights during the filming of our new videos.

 

New Flyer Links Range Health and Productivity, LPCI Assistance

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-9-25-34-amHealthy range is productive range. That’s the simple message in our latest outreach flyer for private landowners in the southern Great Plains. When landowners adopt habitat conservation practices that benefit lesser prairie-chickens, the land responds in ways that benefit wildlife and ranch operations. And through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, there’s both technical and financial assistance available to make that happen.

View the flyer

The flyer describes five core conservation practices supported by LPCI that improve the range for both screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-9-25-51-amwildlife and cattle: Prescribed grazing, drought contingency planning, conversion of expired
Conservation Reserve Program acreage to grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire.

Getting that message to landowners in the LPCI action area is critical. Take a look at the flyer, and share it!

 

 

 

 

 

Landowners Offer Ideas for Improving Habitat Conservation Assistance

In May 2016, 26 private landowners from across the country met in Denver, Colorado, to talk with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff about what is working in the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership and what opportunities exist for improvement. Their insights are captured in a recently released report, National Landowner Forum: Perspectives and Recommendations.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 8.31.01 AMJointly coordinated by Partners for Conservation and NRCS, and including funding support from the Intermountain West Joint Venture, the 2-day meeting provided a forum to share stories of both successes and challenges in carrying out the vision of WLFW conservation assistance.

The participants had five primary recommendations for expanding and improving Working Lands for Wildlife:

  • Demonstrate need and build support for increased conservation technical assistance.
  • Promote effective communication with landowners, NRCS staff members, and partners regarding Working Lands for Wildlife.
  • Work on tools and techniques beyond communications that will help build relationships and partnerships at the local and regional levels.
  • Develop the concept of flexibility in programs, practices, relationships, and partnerships in order to advance Working Lands for Wildlife as an approach.
  • Help partners to identify the overall plan and vision for a landscape or focal species that will motivate participation and foster greater accountability.

The report notes that an overwhelming message that resonated throughout the forum was the importance of effective communication. As one of the initiatives within the Working Lands for Wildlife programs, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is taking these recommendations to heart.

Over the coming months, we’ll be working on expanding communications with field staff, landowners, and partnering organizations to fine-tune our message and increase participation in the voluntary habitat conservation practices that make a real difference for both lesser prairie-chickens and agricultural producers. As always, we welcome any feedback you may have.

 

 

Fire Helps Kansas Rancher Restore Redcedar-infested Grasslands

“When I was a kid growing up out here, there were no cedars. Dad would have to hunt like a dog for a cedar for a Christmas tree.” Tom Carr stands on a bluff overlooking the rolling grasslands of his thousand-acre ranch in the Gyp Hills of south-central Kansas, relishing the view. From this vantage point, it’s clear that you’d have to hunt like a dog once again to find a redcedar Christmas tree—a live one anyway—and that fact makes Tom grin from ear to ear.

Tom Carr (left) surveys the recovery of his ranch grasslands following the Anderson Creek wildfire, June 6, 2016.

Tom Carr (left) admires the recovery of his ranch grasslands ten weeks after the Anderson Creek wildfire with LPCI field staff member Ken Brunson (photo Sandra Murphy).

Though Tom was born and raised here, he spent his career as a professor at the University of Illinois. During that time, redcedars steadily spread across the ranch’s grasslands, as they have across much of this region in the absence of regularly occurring fire.

By 2004, Tom says, the cedars were everywhere. “My brother and I wanted to get it back to how we remembered it as kids, with hardly any cedars and grass to our waists.”

Tom remembers the abundant wildlife on the ranch at that time. “We had quail on quail,” he recalls. “We could pop up four covies in a half-hour.” All that disappeared, Tom says, when the redcedars took over.

Local ranchers Ted Alexander and Charles DeGeer told him about grant programs available for redcedar removal. “We’ve benefited a great deal from these government programs,” Tom says. With financial assistance, he was able to hire cutting teams to start to get a handle on the infestation.

Between 2005 and 2010, they cut cedars on about half the ranch’s grasslands. Despite the cutting, Tom says, cedars continued to spread because he hadn’t yet been able to conduct a prescribed burn.

He figured the burn would happen after he retired in 2010, when he and his wife Jo moved back to the Gyp Hills. But drought conditions set in and put the prescribed burn on hold.

In 2012 and 2013, Tom didn’t rent out the ranchlands for grazing as he usually does, to allow grass fuel to build up. Finally, in 2014, he was able to conduct his first prescribed burn on the ranch, as a member of the Gyp Hills Prescribed Burn Association. Over the course of two prescribed fires, he burned most of his grasslands.

Even so, many redcedars escaped unscathed. Determined to continue the grassland restoration process, he hired local rancher Keith Yearout in early 2016 to cut more redcedars in his west pasture.

Then, on the afternoon of March 23, 2016, the game-changing Anderson Creek Wildfire hit his ranch. “All hell broke loose,” Tom recalls. “It was an unbelievable day.” Stoked by high winds, low humidity, and highly flammable redcedars, the wildfire, which began a day earlier in northern Oklahoma, began to steamroll north.

Dense redcedar stands fuel the Anderson Creek wildfire, March 23, 2013 (Photo Dustin Carr).

“I had no idea there was a wildfire going on,” Tom says, recalling that day. “Then I got on Facebook and saw a post about a wildfire on the Comanche/Barber County line, four miles from my ranch.”

Tom and his son went to the ranch and pulled whatever farm equipment they could into his 120-acre tilled field. They watched the fire move onto their ranch from the west. Tom had just enough time to water around their equipment shed before the fire reached them, forcing them to retreat into the tilled field.

“It’s an interesting feeling to be completely surrounded by fire and flame,” Tom recalls with a grin. “We had 76 bales of hay pulled into the field, and they burned right up.”

The Anderson Creek wildfire races across Tom Carr’s ranch, while Tom and Dustin Carr take refuge in a tilled field. The 76 round hay bales shown in the video burned in the blaze, but the outbuilding survived (Video: Dustin Carr).

The fire burned so hot, it left nothing but bare, charred ground in its wake. “It was nothing like a prescribed burn,” Tom says. “It looked like an atomic bomb went off.”

Tom surveys the fire aftermath, which burned across his entire ranch.

Tom surveys the fire aftermath, which burned across his entire ranch (photo Dustin Carr).

The fire not only burned the ranch’s entire 880 acres of grasslands and scattered cedars, it also killed dense cedar stands on neighboring lands that would have remained a potent seed source for reinfestation.

“I was excited that so many redcedars were burning,” Tom says. He’s quick to preface his enthusiasm with empathy for the many losses experienced by people throughout the nearly 400,000-acre wildfire area. Some 600 cattle died in the fire, and several houses and outbuildings burned, along with many miles of fencing.

As current president of the Gyp Hills PBA, though, Tom is a big advocate for prescribed fire as a range management tool. “I hope the [wild]fire has convinced some people who weren’t sold on prescribed fire,” he says, since prescribed fire delivers the benefits of grassland rejuvenation and cedar control, but does so under carefully controlled conditions.

From Tom’s ranch, the rejuvenating power of fire is apparent as far as the eye can see. Beneath the blackened carcasses of thousands of redcedars and across wide-open fields, lush grasses and wildflowers—neon green in their vigor—cover what had been moonscape just 10 weeks earlier.

IMG_3389

By early June, grasses and wildflowers were flourishing on the ranch (photo Sandra Murphy).

“We had 18 prescribed burns lined up [within the Gyp Hills PBA],” Tom says with obvious satisfaction. “The fire took care of 14 of them!”

Tom’s equipment building survived the blaze, but he lost a lot of fence. Following the fire, he was amazed by and deeply grateful for the flood of volunteer labor and donated materials that helped with fence rebuilding.

The vigorous regrowth of grasses and forbs on his ranch allowed Tom to pasture cattle on his range in mid-June. He currently follows a prescribed grazing plan developed through the NRCS-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). Though his land doesn’t currently support prairie-chickens, it qualified for the LPCI assistance program because of its location in a targeted priority area within active lesser prairie-chicken range.

The plan identifies a stocking rate that aims for a “take half, leave half” forage utilization, which builds grassland health and drought resiliency. “And that’s great for the lesser prairie-chicken!” Tom says with a grin.

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Catclaw sensitive briar, an indicator of healthy grasslands, was one of many wildflower species brightening the range just two months after the wildfire (photo Sandra Murphy).

It’s also good for myriad other grassland species, including the quail he and his brother hope to see restored. He’s excited about the future of his ranchlands, especially in the wake of the wildfire.

“The fire killed millions of cedars, and the land is changing for the good,” Tom says, sweeping his arm across the prairie expanse. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Learn more about LPCI’s technical and financial assistance opportunities for conservation planning, conducting prescribed burns, implementing prescribed grazing plans, and more by contacting your local NRCS office.

USDA Unveils Three-Year Conservation Strategy for Lesser Prairie-Chicken

WILMORE, Kansas, April 28, 2015USDA today announced the release of a three-year conservation strategy that will guide the voluntary restoration of 500,000 acres of habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, an iconic grassland bird of the southern Great Plains. The bird has historically suffered from population declines, and this strategy is part of an ongoing science-based strategic effort by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to restore grassland and prairie ecosystems while enhancing grazing lands in five states.

LPCIFY16-18ConservationStrategyCover“Across the country, we’re seeing firsthand how farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are voluntarily stepping forward to aid wildlife species,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. “By adopting conservation systems, agricultural producers in the southern Great Plains can restore top-notch lesser prairie-chicken habitat while also making working lands more productive and resilient to wildfire and climatic extremes.”

NRCS Assistant Chief Kirk Hanlin made the announcement today at Hashknife Ranch where the Koger family has worked to conserve habitat through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), part of the agency’s Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership. Since 2010, LPCI has conserved more than 1 million acres of high-quality habitat in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.

By the end of 2018, this science-based strategy will guide the restoration of another half-million acres by focusing on five key threats to the bird—degraded rangeland health, invasive redcedar trees and mesquite, cultivation of grazing lands and lack of fire in grassland habitats.

Download the Strategy.

Conservation efforts on the Hashknife Ranch (above) and on other private agricultural lands throughout the lesser prairie-chicken range make working rangelands more productive and resilient to wildfire and climatic extremes.

Conservation efforts on the Hashknife Ranch (above) and on other private agricultural lands throughout the lesser prairie-chicken range make working rangelands more productive and resilient to wildfire and climatic extremes.

This strategy also aligns with ongoing efforts of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and other conservation partners throughout the lesser prairie-chicken range.

 

Research and experience gained through ongoing conservation efforts guide the focus for restoring and protecting lesser prairie-chicken habitat. For example, a recent study found the birds avoid redcedar trees by placing their nests at least 1,000 feet from the nearest tree, and that they stop using grasslands altogether when tree density reaches three trees per acre.

The prairie and grassland ecosystems of the southern Great Plains evolved through the interaction of fire and grazing large animals such as bison. By introducing fire and sustainable ranching practices and removing invasive woody species, ranchers are mimicking historic conditions on Great Plains ecosystems and improving habitat for lesser prairie-chickens while at the same time minimizing risks of catastrophic wildfires.

With about 95 percent of the lesser prairie-chicken’s range under private ownership, voluntary conservation is key to benefitting the species and its habitat. The bird is no longer listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act after a court vacated the March 2014 designation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

Lesser prairie-chicken male displays on a lek (display ground) in eastern New Mexico that burned just a few days earlier.

Lesser prairie-chicken male displays on a lek (display ground) in eastern New Mexico that burned just a few days earlier.

“NRCS remains firmly committed to promoting and delivering long-term conservation of the working grassland ecosystems that the species requires,” Weller said. “In this report, we lay out our renewed commitment to this partnership through 2018, the life of the Farm Bill, and demonstrate the effectiveness these investments can have in bringing back lesser prairie-chicken populations while improving agricultural operations.”

NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to ranchers who want to adopt conservation systems that address threats to and conserve lesser prairie-chicken habitat. To learn more about assistance opportunities, ranchers should contact their local USDA service center.

Habitat restoration efforts on private lands are helping species recover across the country. Earlier this year, the FWS delisted the Louisiana black bear because of the species’ recovery on bottomland hardwood forests restored by Louisiana landowners. In 2015, the FWS determined listings were not needed for the greater sage-grouse, Bi-State sage-grouse and New England cottontail largely because of large-scale collaborative conservation efforts on private lands.

LPCI seeks qualified vendors for filmmaking project

Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative partner organization Pheasants Forever, Inc. seeks proposals from qualified vendors to create a multi-media outreach package including 1) 3 short films, 2) a photographic collection, and 3) a media-ready archive of b-roll footage in the South Great Plains area.

Download the Request for Proposals for full specifications.

All inquiries regarding quote submission are due by May 5th and may be directed to Sandra Murphy at 928-255-3111 or sandra.murphy@lpcinitiative.org. This work is supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 68-3A75-14-120.