An expanded and renewed partnership between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Pheasants Forever will provide professional guidance and technical assistance to producers interested in improving conservation efforts on lesser prairie chicken habitats, the agency said last week.
Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie said the expanded effort is "a win-win for agricultural producers and wildlife."
"We want to help farmers and ranchers succeed for the long term while also protecting and improving habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken and protecting the region's ecosystem. Often, what is good for prairie-chickens is good for ranching," he said.
As part of the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, Pheasants Forever and NRCS will jointly invest $5 million over three years to support technical assistance, including hiring non-federal field conservationists to help farmers and ranchers voluntarily maintain and improve lesser prairie chicken habitat in the Southern Great Plains.
In addition, NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently finalized a plan that can provide regulatory predictability for farmers and ranchers improving lesser prairie-chicken habitat, should the species be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Since 2010, farmers and ranchers participating in the LPCI have maintained or improved more than a million acres of habitat for the bird. The bird's range includes parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The partnership previously funded nine positions, and that will be expanded to up to 11 in cooperation with local and state agencies.
As agreed to by NRCS and USFWS, farmers and ranchers voluntarily applying lesser prairie-chicken-friendly conservation practices may be protected from additional regulations under the Endangered Species Act for up to 30 years. The plan, or conference opinion, outlines the following approach:
• Farmers and ranchers may voluntarily develop a conservation plan with NRCS.
• Farmers and ranchers can execute the practices listed in that conservation plan - such as prescribed grazing, fence marking and invasive species removal - with or without NRCS's financial assistance.
• As long as farmers and ranchers maintain those practices according to NRCS standards, they can continue ranching with those practices in place should the lesser prairie-chicken be listed as threatened or endangered. It also provides for assurances should a chicken be accidentally killed on their property.
"The partnership between the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, state fish and wildlife agencies and others is will provide crucial tools and resources for voluntary conservation on lands that can benefit the lesser prairie-chicken," Bonnie said. "It's partnerships like these that can find solutions for some of our country's most challenging conservation issues."