Birder's Guide

MAY 2015

Birder's Guide is the American Birding Association's newest publication. Each issue focuses on a key subject, providing tips from experienced birders on a wide variety of topics like Travel, Listing & Taxonomy, Gear, and Conservation & Community.

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29 May 2015 | Birder's Guide to Conservation & Community S hen I talk to Colorado landowners about Lesser Prairie-Chickens, most say that they have never seen one. This does not come as much of a surprise; these birds are fairly reclusive and have a limited range in the state. There was a time when the Lesser Prairie-Chicken was com- monplace across its range, but populations have declined from an estimate of millions of birds prior to 1900 to approximately 17,600 in 2013. Lesser Prairie-Chickens occur in only fve states: Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. During spring, groups of males will gather on communal grounds, called leks, and display to attract females. Nesting and brood-rearing typically occurs within close proximity to leks. In Colorado, the primary habitat types utilized by Lesser Prairie-Chickens are native sand sagebrush rangelands and former cropland that has been converted back to grasslands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Habitat creation and im- provement are important for bolstering Lesser Prairie- Chicken populations across the fve-state range. In Co- lorado, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO), Colorado Parks and Wild- life, and the Natural Re- source Conservation Service (NRCS) have been working to improve habitat for Lesser Prairie-Chickens and other wildlife. The Private Lands Partner Biologist program combines the collaborative efforts of these organizations. Partner biologists have worked in south- eastern Colorado since 2009. Because a majority of Lesser Prairie-Chickens are on private land, conservation by landowners is the key to the species' recovery. A partner bi- ologist can help to match landowners with conservation programs that best ft the habi- tat type and the landowner's land-use goals. Conservation programs in Colorado target the two key aspects of Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat: rangeland management and CRP en- rollment and enhancement. Lesser Prairie-Chickens prefer large blocks of habitat, with low levels of fragmentation. Large ranches often provide the perfect niche for these needs, as the birds have adapted to lands that are grazed by large herbivores such as bison or cattle. Grazing that does not leave suffcient grass and shrub hiding cover is a primary concern for Lesser Prairie-Chickens in Colorado. Insuffcient cover can negatively affect populations via depredation. Partner biologists work with ranches to increase habitat cover while maintaining a viable live- stock operation. With the help of a partner biologist, landowners can receive fnancial assistance from NRCS or other agencies for implementing a conserva- tion plan that promotes healthy grazing systems and improves Lesser Prai- rie-Chicken habitat. In these conservation plans, a portion of program- enrolled acres are rested from grazing use annually. Conservation plans also promote additional rest by grazing lots of cattle, but only briefy, in a particular area. For landowners who do not have the water or fencing infrastructure to support a conservation-minded grazing sys- tem, partnerships come in handy. Organiza- tions such as RMBO and NRCS can provide fnancial assistance to update infrastructure. The other critical Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat in Colorado is CRP land. These lands were removed from crop production and planted back to grass through funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. These established grasslands are important as a food and cover source for Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Partner biologists work with farmers to enroll new lands into CRP, and to insure these new establishments are planted with vegetation that will enhance nesting and brooding habitats. Though CRP lands are critical to Lesser Prairie-Chickens, the habitat benefts can diminish over time as grasses in long-term contracts become stag- nant from lack of disturbance. Partner biolo- gists work with CRP owners on management activities that reinvigorate these lands. With the help of partner biologists, CRP remains an important habitat source for Lesser Prai- rie-Chickens in Colorado. Many organizations provide opportunities for Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat improve- ment on private lands, but these efforts would be in vain without willing landowners. Landowners participate in habitat projects in hopes that Lesser Prairie-Chicken will be removed from the Endangered Species List. With fnancial incentives from partner orga- nizations, landowners can implement conser- vation practices with minimal fnancial bur- den. Those who have participated in Lesser Prairie-Chicken conservation efforts have no- ticed the improved condition of their lands, in both native rangeland and CRP. Through the amazing efforts of landowners and part- ner organizations in southeast Colorado, over 70,000 acres of habitat have been enhanced for the beneft of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Partners continue to work on conservation efforts, with the hope that Lesser Prairie- Chickens will once again become common in the area. W Photo © Deanna Mac Phail Photo © Jonathan Reitz Casey Cardinal Lamar, Colorado casey.cardinal@co.usda.gov Partnerships for Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation in Southeastern Colorado

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