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Putting Conservation Easements to Work for Ranchers and Wildlife

When ranchers in the southern Great Plains take part in conservation assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), that assistance most often takes the form of time-limited conservation agreements, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These 3-5 year contracts have proven tremendously valuable in restoring habitat for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife.

They have their limitations though. In a best-case scenario, a landowner finds that the conservation practices they put in place through the short-term conservation agreement greatly benefit his or her ranch operation and bottom line, so that when the contract ends they continue the wildlife-friendly practices. But in reality, once the contract expires, economic issues or myriad other factors can prompt a significant change in land use.

Conservation easements are another voluntary practice in LPCI’s conservation toolbox that can provide long-term benefit to both landowners and wildlife. What is a conservation easement?
It’s a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization, like a land trust, which places some long-term restrictions on the use of a property in order to protect its natural values and maintain it as a working land.

Subdivisions fragment habitat and working ranchlands.

According to Lisa McCauley, NRCS easement specialist in Montana, ranching easements usually focus on limiting subdivision development. The purchase price of the easement is based on the appraised value of the development rights being sold.  Landowners also have the option to donate a portion of the value of their easement and receive significant tax benefits. (Read the full interview with McCauley on the Sage Grouse Initiative website.)

Conservation easements are a commonly used tool for ranchers in Montana. “This year, we’re going to end up with close to 40 applications for enrollment in the NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program [ACEP]—the most ever from our state,” McCauley said.

McCauley attributes Montana’s success in helping landowners conserve the range through conservation easements to the land trusts who hold almost all of the easements NRCS invests in.

“These local partners are dedicated to putting conservation on the ground, and their hard work has paid off. NRCS is so lucky to be able to partner with Montana’s land trusts, and would not be successful without them,” McCauley said.

These easements have direct benefits for greater sage grouse, the focal species for the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). Like LPCI, SGI is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Through SGI, NRCS has invested nearly $42 million since 2010 to place conservation easements on 191,200 acres of sage grouse habitat in Montana alone.

Though conservation easements are much less a part of the ranching culture in the southern Great Plains, they have every bit as much potential to benefit ranchers and wildlife as in sage grouse country.

A conservation easement ensures that this 29,718-acre working ranch in western Kansas will retain intact prairie habitat, benefitting both rancher and wildlife. Photo courtesy Jim Pitman, WAFWA.

In addition to the NRCS ACEP program, ranchers in the lesser prairie-chicken’s five-state range can pursue a conservation easement through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). During the past year, three parcels of ranchland in lesser prairie-chicken habitat, totaling 33,053 acres, have been permanently protected through WAFWA’s Perpetual Conservation Agreement program.

Jim Pitman, WAFWA’s Conservation Delivery Director, stresses that the terms in a conservation easement are negotiable and the land trusts can tailor the language to align with the landowner’s desires. “Conservation easements do not restrict a landowner’s ability to control access, make management decisions, or recreate on their property,” Pitman said. Instead, they help ensure that the conservation values of a working ranch—like wildlife habitat, native vegetation, scenic views—will be maintained in perpetuity.”

How to Learn More

Ranchers in the southern Great Plains interested in learning more about conservation easements through either NRCS or WAFWA should contact their local USDA Service Center.

Thursday, May 18, at 12:00pm Central Time, the Texas Wildlife Association will host a free webinar, “Agricultural Conservation Easements: A Valuable Landowner Tool,” presented by Ken Cearley – Stewardship Director for the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. Learn how you can tune in.


Launched in 2010, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

 

 

JOB ANNOUNCEMENT: LPCI Seeks New Range & Wildlife Conservationist

 

 

FARM BILL RANGE & WILDLIFE CONSERVATIONIST

 Application Deadline:  May 29th

Location: Portales, New Mexico

Overview:   This position is located in the USDA field office in Roosevelt County, New Mexico and will provide conservation services for Lesser Prairie Chicken conservation in the counties of Chaves, Curry, De Baca, Eddy, Guadalupe, Lea, Quay and Roosevelt, New Mexico.

The incumbent will serve as a Farm Bill Biologist providing biological/wildlife technical assistance for USDA, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF), Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Pheasants Forever Inc. and Quail Forever (PF/QF) and our other local partners. The successful applicant will deliver conservation programs to farmers, ranchers and other landowners primarily in the interest on Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation. The position will be an employee of and be supervised by Pheasants Forever, Inc. with daily instruction and leadership provided by PF LPCI Coordinator and local partners.  Funding is provided by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, NMDGF and other local partners.

Duties:

  • Provide technical assistance (wildlife habitat focus) and guidance to landowners, government agencies, non-government organizations and others (training will be provided the USDA, PF/QF, NMDGF and other local and state agencies).
  • Coordinate the implementation and application of wildlife habitat within the conservation programs in cooperation with NRCS District Conservationist, NMDGF Staff, and others.
  • Complete contracts, applications and other required documentation for conservation programs offered under the LPCI and WAFWA’s Range-wide Plan.
  • Communicate program requirements, complete site visits to determine eligibility, and develop plans and contracts for applicants enrolling in USDA Conservation Programs or other state and local conservation programs.
  • Perform other related duties as assigned.

Required Knowledge Skills and Abilities:

  • Ability to communicate clearly and effectively with landowners and partner agencies.
  • Ability to work independently with little supervision and with diverse clientele.
  • Knowledge of wildlife ecology, wetland and grassland management including the ability to utilize various habitat management tools and techniques in the development of management plans.
  • Knowledge of conservation and wildlife programs provided by the LPCI and WAFWA’s range wide plan.  In addition, knowledge of how these programs are implemented in an agricultural and range landscape is desired.
  • Knowledge of conservation measures for enrollees through CEHMM for Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA) and grassland opportunities.
  • Knowledge of conservation and wildlife programs provided by Federal (i.e. Farm Bill, US Fish and Wildlife Service), State agencies and PF.  In addition, knowledge of how these programs are implemented in an agricultural landscape is desired.
  • Ability to apply and use GIS tools (i.e. GPS, ARC Map, etc.).
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
  • Strong organizational skills.
  • Valid driver’s license required; work vehicle provided; some use of personal vehicle required (mileage reimbursement provided).
  • Able to obtain USDA Federal Security Clearance.

Training and Experience Guideline: Any combination of training and/or experience that will enable the applicant to possess the required knowledge, skills and abilities.  A general qualification guideline for this position is a Bachelor of Science Degree in Wildlife Management or closely related natural resources field and/or related field experience. Experience working with private land habitat planning is highly desirable.

Salary Range: $34,000 – $38,500 + Health Benefits and Retirement Package.

To Apply: Visit our website at www.pheasantsforever.org/jobs

ONLY ONLINE APPLICATIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED. Please combine your cover letter, resume and 3 references as a single Word document or PDF file before uploading to the Recruitment website.

Pheasants Forever Inc. and Quail Forever are EEO Employers/Vet/Disabled.

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.

New Role Coordinates LPCI’s Field Capacity, Deepens Partnerships

Since 2012, Jordan Menge has worked with landowners in the Texas Panhandle to help restore habitat for lesser prairie-chickens, as part of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT). Now he has taken on a new role, as the SWAT Capacity Coordinator, overseeing SWAT field staff across the five-state LPCI action area.

Jordan Menge, LPCI’s SWAT Capacity Coordinator

Through LPCI, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) teams up with partner agencies and organizations to expand the field delivery, science, and communications capacity for lesser prairie-chicken conservation. Pooling resources, partner organizations fund SWAT range conservationists and wildlife biologists based in field offices in critical habitat areas in the Southern Plains states.

SWAT field staffers work with landowners who chose to participate in voluntary range conservation programs funded through the federal Farm Bill and through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan.

Under contract with LPCI partner organization Pheasants Forever, Menge will help build LPCI’s SWAT program, aiming to have five SWAT field staffers in place by the end of 2017—one in each of the five states that are home to lesser prairie-chickens.

“Over time—hopefully in the next year or two—we can expand the SWAT program to 10 people,” Menge said.

Menge will work with NRCS and WAFWA biologists to train field staff. “New science is constantly informing conservation practices.” Menge said.  “Training SWAT staff to incorporate the latest research findings related to lesser prairie-chicken ecology helps ensure that conservation dollars deliver the greatest return on investment.”

His role will help coordinate conservation efforts among partner organizations. “We’ll be pretty involved with WAFWA, carrying out vegetation monitoring and conservation planning.”

“I hope we can bring better communications through our partners to implement positive conservation on the ground for producers and for chickens,” Menge said.

Great to have you in your new role, Jordan!

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Passion for Wild Things–A Poet’s Perspective on WLFW Conservation

Ranch manager Martin Moore (right) proudly shows the redcedar removal work he has done on the Moore Ranch to NRCS District Conservationist Paul Clark

Ranch manager Martin Moore (right) and NRCS District Conservationist Paul Clark savor the view of redcedar removal work on the Moore ranch in Oklahoma.

There’s a lot of science and strategy behind what the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative does within the NRCS Working Lands For Wildlife partnership. But those efforts are fueled and made successful by the love and caring that landowners and the resource managers who work with them feel for the land. A poem by  Ritch Nelson, NRCS Nebraska State Wildlife Biologist beautifully captures this conservation spirit.

Wild Things 

A wise man named Aldo, once wrote of ‘wild things’
The chance to find a pasque flower; chart when a bird sings.

The delight these things offer to enrich our lives.
The harmony of nature for which man strives.

He joined up with Bennet on Wisconsin’s small farms,
For good soil and water, to keep critters from harm.

T’was back in the thirties but the concept lives on.
Conserve the resource before it is gone.

Degraded landscapes are taking a toll.
Private landowners play a critical role.

Much wildlife lives on our working lands.
We can save these key species if we all lend a hand.

The chickens that range ‘cross the southern High Plains;
Where ranchers and partners are taking great pains,

To restore the grassland and supply more fodder.
Nest success up; prescribed fires burn hotter.

While in the southeast, down under the pines,
Plans for the tortoise are making headlines.

For they offer many a critter a home,
In burrows dug deep in the sandy loam.

The outlook now better for a small, lowly toad.
When we partner together and take a new road.

Out west in the spring a large bird is booming,
And meanwhile threats to its life-blood are looming.

But livestock and grouse can be on the same page;
Persist side by side in a vast sea of sage.

Throughout Appalachia, a warbler calls out –
Counted in data, the biologists tout.

In southwest Montana a new day now dawns;
Streams clear and free-flowing where the grayling will spawn.

The bunny fares better with succession set back;
With the woodcock and ruffed grouse also on track.

The Oregon chub, a small fish – delisted;
Thriving in floodplains with oxbows so twisted.

Big rivers that flow through the land of the bear,
Support wooded swamps on lands we now share.

And with each new cub, the black bear secures
A more solid footing, their future endures.

All that is done, the efforts we take,
Is for the whole sum, not just for the sake,

Of one target species but rather the web;
The cogs on a wheel, as time flows and ebbs.

There’ll always be more ‘wild things’ to conserve;
To be more proactive and not just observe.

Rural communities of neighbors and friends,
Are much more complex for they do extend,

To soil and water, plants, animals, air –
The whole ecosystem for which we care.

For shouldn’t we love, admire and respect?
To build a land ethic to help us connect,
The humans to resources, we dare not neglect.

Pulling together, we now take a stand
To follow our calling, helping people help the land!

New Magazine Highlights Conservation Successes on Working Lands, Including LPCI

From ranchers in the West to forest managers in the East, private landowners are voluntarily conserving habitat for wildlife, helping species rebound and recover. These successes—including the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative’s work conserving grassland habitat in the southern Great Plains—are the focus of the new Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) magazine.

Read the magazine.WLFWmagazine

WLFW is a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnership initiative that targets species whose decline can be reversed and benefits other species with similar habitat needs. Species include the lesser prairie-chickenNew England cottontailSouthwestern willow flycatchergreater sage-grousegopher tortoisebog turtle and golden-winged warbler.

Private lands are essential for providing habitat for nearly two-thirds of all species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Through WLFW, NRCS works with conservation partners and private landowners to restore populations of declining wildlife species, provide regulatory certainty and strengthen and sustain rural economies. The nation’s landowners—farmers, ranchers and forest managers—provide not only food and fiber for the world but also include a variety of environmental benefits, including habitat for wildlife.

WLFW uses a voluntary, innovative approach to benefit high-priority habitat for seven species of wildlife that are declining, candidates for listing or listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  WLFW works with agricultural producers to create and improve wildlife habitat with regulatory predictability from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

 

Conservation Reserve Program accepting more acreage for LPC habitat

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced increases in the acreage of agricultural lands eligible for funding through one of its wildlife habitat restoration programs. The program, known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) is an initiative within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

LPCI wildlife biologist Megan Waechter studies CRP grassland.

LPCI wildlife biologist Megan Waechter studies CRP grassland.

The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers CRP and its SAFE program, and NRCS provides technical support to enrolled landowners. The Texas FSA office announced a 27,300-acre increase, and Kansas FSA announced a 55,000-acre increase (click links to read state funding announcements).

If you are a farmer or rancher in the five-state lesser prairie-chicken range, contact your local USDA/FSA office to determine whether you are located in a designated SAFE-eligible area.

CRP uses Farm Bill funding to provide annual rental payments to agricultural landowners to establish grassland cover on sensitive agricultural lands to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and establish wildlife habitat. The State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program is a subset of CRP specifically targeted to significant natural resource landscapes and associated benefits, including threatened species like the lesser prairie-chicken. SAFE offers incentive payments for new enrollments, annual acreage rental payments, and cost-share funding.