Easement To Protect Lesser Prairie Chickens in Shortgrass Prairie

TOPEKA – 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 northwest Kansas.

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

“We applaud these visionary landowners who are protecting and conserving the landscape as working ranches, ensuring they will be enjoyed by future generations. These easements will protect habitat that benefits a whole host of wildlife species, including the lesser prairie chicken. This is another positive step toward establishing a stronghold for lesser prairie chickens in this area,” Odle added.

The complex of properties is located near Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County, which is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The 17,290-acre ranch is identified in the rangewide plan as a potential target, around which a stronghold for lesser prairie chickens could be established. A stronghold is defined as a block of fairly contiguous grassland consisting of at least 25,000 acres that contains at least six active lek sites, which are mating areas for the birds. 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. With additional easements like the ones just finalized, 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 landowners. WAFWA 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 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 us to be a part of this and help these landowners achieve their long-term visions for their ranches.”

The rangewide 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 and Wildlife Service; and many non-government conservation organizations. It was developed to conserve the lesser prairie chicken 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 plan. The plan provides certainty to participants that they will be able to continue operations without interruption, and when fully implemented produces a net conservation benefit to the lesser prairie chicken.

Contact Roger Wolfe at (785) 256-3737 for more information. The Lesser Prairie Chicken Rangewide Conservation Plan can be found at www.wafwa.org.