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Lesser Prairie Chicken Threatened Species Listing Ruffles Feathers in Kansas

It's prairie chicken mating season!

Still, it's tough being a lesser prairie chicken these days.

This type of grouse once spanned an enormous area, though now they survive mainly in pockets of Oklahoma and Kansas. Their numbers are plummeting; in 2012, the population dropped by half.

Now, after they were recently listed as a threatened species by the U.S. government, complaints of federal overreach and lawsuits have followed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had been threatening to step in and protect the lesser prairie chicken for years, a sour prospect for farmers and ranchers, who own almost all the bird’s habitat.

“They almost think they can take over your property, if you’re not doing everything you can, to make sure this species survives,” says Norval Ralstin, who has thousands of acres with crops, cattle and wind turbines near Mullinville, Kan.

The wind power and oil companies that operate there don’t want the feds coming in either, so over the last few years they worked with Fish and Wildlife and came up with a grand plan.

Jim Pitman, with the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks, calls it a “range-wide plan.” He says it covers the bird’s entire habitat: parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas

“It’s unprecedented,” Pitman says. “It’s really difficult for state agencies to work across those political boundaries.”

The plan will pay landowners to make their property more livable for prairie chickens and companies that degrade habitat will have to compensate landowners to create more of it elsewhere. It could be profitable for farmers and ranchers and it needs to be.

Daniel Ashe, director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, says the birds are desperate for habitat.

“They’ve lost 84 percent of the short grass prairie, which this bird depends on for its home,” Ashe says.

Credit Wikimedia Commons CC
A lesser prairie chicken pauses in the Red Hills of Kansas.

We’re walking towards a lek, which is kind of like a singles bar for prairie chickens. They get together and, do their thing.

Half a dozen, football-shaped males are out with striped plumage and bulging orange air sacks on their necks, strutting around this patch of high ground, picking fights and trying to impress the ladies.

“Hen just flew in,” says Ken Brunson with the Nature Conservancy. He says the birds convene at the same spots each year to mate but otherwise keep their distance.

“This is a large landscape species. The birds from this lek will probably require up to 20 square miles for their home range to be able to exist,” Brunson says.

They only nest on the ground, nowhere near a tree or anything else, like an oil derrick or wind turbine, sticking up from the prairie. There were once millions of the birds and Ashe says now there may be fewer than 18,000.

“We’ve made a threatened determination, which allows us flexibility to recognize the work that’s been done at the state level,” Ashe says.

That’s the range-wide plan. Ashe says this special listing only improves the plan they came up with regionally.

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Norval Ralstin owns Eagle Canyon Ranch near Mullinville, Kansas. His spread covers some prime lesser prairie chicken habitat, but he doesn't want to say whether or not the bird exists there, because he fears federal regulation.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Preitt’s not buying it.

“For the Fish and Wildlife Service to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to classify the lesser prairie chicken but we’re not going to change anything,’ seems to beg the question, then why did you take the step?” Preitt says.

He plans to sue to stop the listing but the real action is with the landowners. If they don’t agree to take payments to manage their properties in bird-friendly ways, the whole range-wide plan falls apart.

Wayne Keller is scanning the vast expanse of caramel-colored prairie from his ranch south of Dodge City for prairie chickens. Keller says it’s drought that is killing them.

“Four years of just real brutal conditions,” Keller says. “No morning dews, just blast furnace winds.”

The prairie grass has died back and the wildlife that depends on it is suffering. Lesser prairie chickens only live about a year and a half average, so a couple of years without many chicks takes a serious toll.

Back at the breeding ground, these blustery males are doing their part. If they can get the hens -- and the weather -- to cooperate, each couple could produce up to a dozen chicks and help the build the bird’s numbers. But with lawsuits, legislation and hard feeling to sort out, repairing its habitat is going to be more difficult.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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