How can the lesser prairie chicken be saved? Farmers are starting by saving their habitat

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
A pair of lesser prairie chicken males show off their colorful plumage and vie for attention from females as they fight during the spring mating ritual at a ranch in Scott City.

When Wayne Walker first saw a flock of lesser prairie chickens 20 years ago, he was mesmerized.

In May, the bird might be added to the endangered species list. Whether it is added to the list or not, Walker wants the lesser prairie chicken to flourish.

Walker, who is the CEO of LPC Conservation, realized saving the bird meant saving the bird's habitat. So the native Texan set out to help save the grasslands in several states where the bird resides - including Kansas. 

Hoeme on the range

There are fewer than 20,000 lesser prairie chickens in Kansas. According to the Nature Conservancy of Kansas, more than half of these birds live in western Kansas - many of them on Stacy Hoeme's ranch near Scott City.

"We have the highest concentration or metric of birds per acre (up to 10) on our stronghold than anywhere else in Kansas,” Hoeme said.

On Thursday, Walker met with Hoeme and other conservationists on Hoeme's land. Hoeme has set aside shortgrass prairie to help the grouse.

According to the Nature Conservancy in Kansas, Hoeme has some of the largest known populations and densities of the lesser prairie chicken anywhere. But setting aside land is difficult - and oftentimes costly.

A lesser prairie chicken amid the bird's annual mating ritual, April 8, 2021 near Milnesand, New Mexico.

Saving the grassland

On April 14, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a range-wide habitat conservation plan asking for public comment for the lesser prairie-chicken. 

"We need to have hundreds of thousands of acres in the right places, contiguous, to save this bird," Walker said. "We need to either save the strongholds that are left or rebuild the strongholds."

This plan allows regulatory assurances for wind, solar, electric transmission and distribution lines and communication towers for industry participants who wish to responsibly develop projects in the grasslands where the lesser prairie-chicken thrives. This HPC will allow farmers and ranchers to get paid through private sector investments for setting aside land for promoting lesser prairie chickens.

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"We need clean power to fight climate change," Walker said. "But we shouldn’t do it at the (cost of) snuffing out wildlife. Grassland birds and grassland ecosystems are really suffering."

LPC Conservation will administer the HCP. This will allow Walker's company to buy easement for the land and use it for specific industrial rights while at the same time, through specific conservation measures, making the land available for the bird and other habitats.  

"I am working with the conservation bankers because I want to be able to keep the ranch in my family," Hoeme said. "The ability to receive fair compensation for the permanent easement is very attractive."

Up to 500,000 acres of project impacts can be enrolled and covered under the HCP during a 30-year term. Along with getting a long-term contract, landowners will be paid for using their property to turn it back to prairie.

"This allows energy development to go forward," Walker said. "We need to deliver a market-based solution that will help the chicken. These are sacred landscapes and you’ve got to pay them (the landowner) for the value of their land."

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U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall released a statement advocating for this species and conservation practices.

“Simply put – the folks on the ground know the best way to protect and promote wildlife habitat, not D.C. bureaucrats," Marshall said in a release. "Constitutionally protected property rights are the cornerstone of our republic, and the government should allow farmers and ranchers to control what happens on their land.”

More about the lesser prairie chicken

The lesser prairie chicken is smaller than the greater prairie chicken. At one time, the grouse flourished in the southern Great Plains. Now, small quantities of the bird can be found in western Oklahoma and Texas, southwestern Kansas and eastern Colorado and New Mexico.

Although it loves insects, especially grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. The bird also eats seeds, twigs and leaves. 

"The prairie chicken provides us with clean air and clean water," Walker said. "If those birds are at risk of going extinct, that whole ecosystem is going the wrong way."

To read more about the lesser prairie-chicken in Kansas visit the animal's page at the Nature Conservancy of Kansas via nature.org.