K-State Research and Extension News
July 17, 2012
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Lesser Prairie Chicken Threatened? Endangered?


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MANHATTAN, Kan. – The lesser prairie chicken – a small grouse -- is now a candidate for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing as a threatened or endangered species. The service has started an in-depth study of current risks for the bird and its habitats.

“No matter what happens, landowners will be directly responsible for the fate of this species,” said Charlie Lee, K-State Research and Extension wildlife specialist. “Most of its habitat is privately owned acreage.

“For landowners, the real issue is whether management authority will stay at the state agency level or become a federal concern. This may include any habitat restoration projects for the lesser prairie chicken.”

The debate is likely to be heated, Lee said, because many landowners fear the potential restrictions a threatened or endangered listing might bring.

A sometimes game bird, the lesser prairie chicken was plentiful long ago. Its range includes parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. But, 50 percent of the current population lives in southwest and south central Kansas – the only state that still has a lesser prairie chicken hunting season.

Ironically, the Kansas population isn’t just thriving, Lee said.  (Hunting typically results in less than 2 percent mortality for the state flock.) In fact, the birds’ habitat seems to be expanding northward.

“Their breeding grounds used to be south of the Arkansas River. But, the birds have slowly been increasing their range. We’ve now got breeding grounds as far north as Thomas County,” he said.

Lee added, however, some reasons for the state’s success could easily erode:

* When Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire, landowners could convert large blocks of prairie or grass back into growing crops.

* Overgrazing cattle pastures can lead to a long, slow recovery. Yet, balancing beef gains and grass health can be difficult to impossible during heat and drought.

* Energy and communications structures can fragment habitat. Even tall trees make lesser prairie chickens nervous. Studies show that during nesting and brood rearing, the birds will avoid about 2,000 acres around a wind turbine.

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Kathleen Ward
kward@ksu.edu
K-State Research & Extension News

Charles Lee is at 785-532-5734 or clee@ksu.edu