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 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