Two Win-Win Initiatives With Common Recovery Goals, Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Greater Sage-Grouse

March 30, 2012

By Christian A. Hagen, Science Advisor, NRCS, Oregon State University

Have you ever been in the southern Great Plains or the high sagebrush steppe on a crisp April morning and heard mysterious cackling or bubbling sounds carried on the winds?

If you were sitting on a sand dune surrounded by waves of little bluestem in the Great Plains, more than likely it was the cackling of male lesser prairie chickens displaying to impress females.

If you were perched on a lava rock crag amidst a sea of sagebrush, you were listening to bubbling pops and wing-swishing of male greater sage-grouse on their breeding grounds, called leks.

In either case, you had the great fortune to experience the elaborate mating rituals of two iconic western birds. Their courtship inspired the dances of Plains Indian tribes and continues to capture the imagination of birdwatchers, upland bird hunters and behavioral ecologists alike.

Both lesser prairie chickens and greater sage-grouse depend on large prairie and steppe landscapes shared by agricultural producers, primarily ranching operations. Historically, their ranges were vast, but today wild prairies have dwindled by 90 percent, and sagebrush steppe by 50 percent.

Stressors on these landscapes continue and include energy development, subdivision, invasive species, and drought. This reduction in available habitat has led to Candidate Species status under the Endangered Species Act of both lesser prairie chicken and greater sage-grouse.

New Conservation approach

Recognizing the serious declines in suitable habitat, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its partners have taken a proactive and targeted approach to recovering both species. NRCS Chief Dave White is leading what has fast become a win-win model for success that’s helping ranchers and birds thrive across large landscapes.

In 2010, NRCS harnessed the power of the Farm Bill to create the Sage Grouse Initiative that in just two years has enrolled more than 450 ranchers, invested in excess of $100 million and generated nearly $60 million in partner matches.

The NRCS is taking the same approach with the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative. Both initiatives provide landowner assistance in priority habitat areas for voluntary management, enhancement, and expansion of suitable habitat – actions that benefit sustainable ranching as well. The goal is to maintain agricultural and rural ways of life.

Building Capacity

To carry out the work on the ground, Strategic Watershed Action Teams (SWATs) have added range conservationists and wildlife biologists to key rural areas throughout the west. By joining forces with 38 diverse partners, a total of 34 positions are now strategically located throughout areas of greatest conservation need.

Targeted Approach

Program delivery focuses on priority landscapes identified in conjunction with state fish and wildlife agencies, Bureau of Land Management and other partners. Landscape targeting ensures that conservation investments benefit the greatest numbers of birds in the best areas.

In the case of greater sage-grouse, 75 percent of the birds occur in only about 25% of their range. Investments in these areas of greatest density have the greatest likelihood of success. Initiative objectives are funded by NRCS through the Conservation Technical Assistance Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.

Science is the Foundation

NRCS is committed to rigorous evaluations of outcomes from carrying out conservation practices through the two initiatives. A combination of intensive university and state wildlife agency research projects and case studies will be developed to quantify the effects of NRCS practices to prairie chicken and sage-grouse populations. Additionally, changes in available habitat resulting from NRCS practices will be quantified using satellite imagery. These tools will provide partners and cooperators with a high level of confidence as to the benefits of conservation investments.

Learn more about these initiatives at NRCS.

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The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.