Michael Pearce

Federal program to expand support for prairie chickens, livestock

KIOWA COUNTY Lesser prairie chickens are about to get the gift of another 500,000 acres largely managed to their liking, according to Kirk Hanlin, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service assistant chief. That’s in addition to the about 1 million acres already under the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, a group of many state and federal agencies, and conservation groups dedicated to improving lesser prairie chicken populations.

Hanlin made the announcement Thursday afternoon, after touring a Kansas ranch of about 35,000 acres where lesser prairie chicken research has been underway for about three years. He said it’s time to implement what’s been learned from such research, to improve the populations of the birds that range through parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Lesser prairie chicken populations have been in overall decline for about the past ten years, though modest increases have come since a wide-spread drought ended about two years ago. At one time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had placed the birds on their threatened species list. Last year a federal judge in Texas removed the birds from the listing, saying the federal group had not followed proper procedures leading up to the listing.

Hanlin pledged his agency’s support through about the next two years, saying they hoped to concentrate efforts and education in several ways. All should provide healthier habitat for lesser prairie chickens and more productive grazing lands for ranchers.

Prescribed grazing - During the day, several researchers stated that grazing is an important tool for keeping a prairie healthy. The key is not over or under graze an area. Hanlin hopes landowners can be better educated as to how to find the perfect amount of grazing that benefits their livestock and wildlife.

Tree removal - Research at several areas across Kansas and other states showed that lesser prairie chickens will avoid an area if there’s as few as one tree per acre. In many areas the most problematic plants are cedar trees. As well as providing perches for predators, cedars rob wildlife and livestock of huge amounts of grass and sometimes thousands of gallons of water per acre.

Easements - Hanlin cited the loss of native prairie to cultivation as a frequent problem in the past, and concern for the future. He said the NRCS is investigating a program to provide landowners financial incentive to enroll lands in natural grass programs, and keep them from being broken for farming.

Prescribed burning - Assisting landowners to implement planned burning programs on their prairies is an easy, and inexpensive way, to create better prairies for many kinds of wildlife and grazing animals. Research has shown prairie chickens do best in areas with various stages of recovery from fire. Biologist said hen prairie chickens like to nest in areas that haven’t been burned in three or four years, then move their broods to areas that had been burned more recently. There, the chicks can more easily move around and find insects to eat.

Upcoming coverage

An article on the centennial celebration of Camp Wood, a YMCA facility of about 860 acres in the Flint Hills, should run within the next four or five days. May 7 the camp will host the public for a free day of tours and assorted outdoors activities. As well as normal youth and educational camps, this summer Camp Wood will begin hosting similar outdoors camps for families, complete with educational programs and the normal variety of outdoors activities.

Sunday’s Outdoors page should have more details about how things look for the future of lesser prairie chickens. Things certainly look better than they did a few years ago, thanks to population increases and lessons learned from recent research. As well as for those birds, that is great news for dozens of kinds of wildlife that share the same habitat and ranchers owning cattle on the same grasslands.

Down the road, I’m hoping for an article about bed and breakfast operations in Kansas that offer guests angling opportunities on private waters. It’s a great way to get away from home and into some of the better fishing in Kansas, especially for largemouth bass.

I’m also hoping to start investigating some of the endurance running and mountain bike races in Kansas. There are some seriously challenging runs and rides, through some wicked trails, that are drawing people from across the nation and several countries to Kansas.

Never heard of any? Don’t feel alone, they haven’t gotten much publicity outside a limited circle of endurance runners and riders.

Michael’s world

We had a great few days last weekend, flying out to California to see Lindsey and Lance, her boyfriend. It was the first time we got to see Lance’s new house, which is really nice and about three times what it could cost in Kansas. It’s in Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, where most of the time it was quieter than around our house in Newton. Then again, they didn’t have a huge set of railroad tracks running through town, like we do, with locomotives sounding horns at all hours of the day and night, either.

The highlight, of course, was getting to spend time with Lindsey and Lance. (Yes, Kathy and I like him a lot.) But we had fun on a trip with Lady Bird, Lindsey’s sweet Australian Shepherd. We took the dog to a ranch far up into the mountains, where a rancher kept a herd of sheep largely so people from the city could see if their dog has any natural herding instincts.

Lady wasn’t too impressive at first, shying away from a stock trailer holding several sheep. When the rancher took her into a large, open corral with a small herd of sheep, Lady showed almost no interest in the animals and just kind of trotted about having fun being outside.

We really weren’t surprised since Lindsey knows very little about the dog’s breeding, experience or even exact age since Lady Bird was found wandering the streets in Texas, in desperate need of food and attention.

Then the rancher decided to take us up to an enclosed corral that was much smaller and walled so Lady Bird wouldn’t have as many distractions. Again, she showed little interest in the three sheep within the confines. Then, something kicked in and she decided she needed to keep them moving and all three in a tight cluster.

It was amazing to watch because she’s probably had no training, but just seemed to know what needed to be done. She’s normally a super-mellow dog that avoids any kind of conflict, but she eventually had no shyness about really getting direct with the sheep. She didn’t hurt any, but they knew quickly that she meant business.

You know, Kathy and I have noticed our clocks and calendars are moving slower than ever, since we learned our first grandchild is coming in early October. Fortunately Jerrod and Carilyn live much closer than California.

Bests,

Michael Pearce

mpearce@wichitaeagle.com

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