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Preserving Kansas' prairie

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 22, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, April 23, 2011, at 6:23 p.m.

Photos

Imagine Kansas without a prairie. Without pure running creeks or streams. Without wildlife — prairie chickens, swift foxes, ferruginous hawks, black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs.

It could happen, biologists say, and already is in many parts of the state.

"The prairie is the foundation of our natural heritage," said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.

"If we continue to turn the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills into 10-acre ranchettes and vast expanses of massive industrial wind turbine complexes, we lose a lot of grassland species.

"Already, it is almost like there is a slow moving tsunami from Wichita on east."

On the 41st annual Earth Day, some Kansans are examining the state's most threatened areas.

Of the tallgrass prairies that once covered much of the United States, only 4 percent remains untouched.

Most of what is left is in the Flint Hills, said Rob Manes, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in Kansas.

Once billed as the "Prairie Chicken Capital of the World," the Flint Hills hold dwindling numbers of the birds.

In three decades, the prairie chicken population has dropped almost 90 percent on the area's eastern edge and 50 percent in the rest of the Flint Hills, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks studies show.

And, if prairie chickens are in trouble, that may signal that other prairie birds also are in trouble, wildlife biologists say.

Annual prairie burning, close grazing, invasive trees and the encroachment of civilization all are factors in their decline, Manes said.

Greater prairie chickens once enjoyed a range that extended from central Texas into Canada. Only Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota have sizable populations now.

The birds also thrive in some areas of north-central and northwest Kansas, in the absence of widespread annual burning, invasive trees and development.

"What makes these places so special is the vast expanses of landscape," Klataske said. "It allows many of these species to continue to exist and thrive."

In order for prairie chickens to thrive, they needs tens of thousands of acres — as much as 50,000 to have a healthy population, Manes said.

"If you talk about managing 1,000 acres in the middle of cropland, it is not ecologically functional," he said.

Areas worth protecting

In the fall of a good year, the bluestem grass of the Flint Hills can grow 10 feet tall, with roots stretching 12 feet into the soil.

The stems and roots of the grass made sod that Kansas settlers used to make huts as they plowed fields for the first time in the mid- to late 19th century.

Settlement and plowing were so widespread that many states have little of their tallgrass prairies left.

In Iowa, for instance, less than 200 acres remain.

The fact that the Flint Hills had so many limestone outcroppings made it harder to plow — and easier to save.

But that's only one prairie ecosystem. Each of the state's prairie ecosystems is unique, Manes said.

* The Flint Hills of Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma represent three-fourths of what is left in the tallgrass prairie in the Western Hemisphere. Besides greater prairie chicken habitat, the region is an important north-south migration route for American golden-plovers, buff-breasted sandpipers and upland plovers. Pristine creeks in the region include Diamond Creek and Coyne Creek.

* The Red Hills of south-central Kansas and north-central Oklahoma also represent one of the largest continuous grasslands in the region. The mixed grass prairie attracts different species, including lesser prairie chickens. The area receives less rain than the Flint Hills and includes some of the state's most pristine creeks, including Thompson Creek, Medicine Lodge River and Turkey Creek.

And because of large sandstone caves in the region, the Red Hills are also home to the state's largest bat populations.

* The Smoky Hills, which include the Dakota Hills, Coronado Hills and Greenhorn Limestone Hills, have now become the stronghold for prairie chickens. The area contains a mixture of tallgrass and mixed grasses. The grazing area is different from the Flint Hills in that it relies more on cow-calf operations than stock and graze operations. Ranchers do burn but not as heavily as in the Flint Hills.

* Wetlands — Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Marais des Cygnes. Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira are considered international wetlands of importance because they serve as migratory stops for North American waterfowl and shorebirds, including whooping cranes and sandhill cranes.

"Kansas has only a tiny fraction of wetlands remaining compared to what was here prior to European settlement," Manes said.

* Chalk Bluffs, centered in Logan County. The area contains shortgrass prairie and has one of the largest complexes of blacktail prairie dog populations as well as a thriving population of black-footed ferrets.

The threats

Wind energy first gained momentum in Kansas more than a decade ago.

Increasingly, biologists are becoming concerned as to how it affects wildlife habitat.

Wind farms include paved roads, towers, transmission lines and sizable electrical substations.

And when that happens, Manes said, "species become fragmented, invasive plants become introduced. When you look at these turbines from afar, they look ethereal. But this is an industrial complex."

Other threats include invasive trees — red cedar and thorny locust that unchecked can quickly take over pastures — and zebra mussels, which in recent years have begun invading Kansas lakes.

Additional threats include people who buy property "who are very well-meaning but let it grow up in trees because they like the birds or want to hold the deer,'' Manes said. "Trees are detrimental to grasslands and wildlife."

What can save our prairies, Klataske and Manes said, are things like conservation easements.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has started the process of buying voluntary conservation easements in the Flint Hills. Participating landowners would have control over day-to-day operations on their land and would be able to pass it on and sell it.

But the easements can also determine any future development of wind energy, commercial businesses and, in some cases, residences on the land.

"It needs to be a national priority to protect these areas before they are gone," Klataske said.

Losing the prairie piece by piece, Klataske said, is much like losing the spokes in a wheel.

"When you lose too many of these, the ecological structure is no longer functional," Klataske said. "Losing just one species like the prairie chickens indicates you are losing the basic elements that make it possible for other species. First the prairie chickens, then the upland sandpipers and on down the list."

More than a century ago, wolves, buffalo, turkeys and deer were nearly driven to extinction. Slowly, some of those species are beginning to make comebacks in Kansas.

"Why do we need to replace all of this natural heritage with ranchettes and wind turbines and highways and parking lots?" Klataske said.

"It makes us poorer, I think, if we can no longer contemplate or appreciate the presence of wildlife."

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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