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At its recent winter meeting in Las Vegas, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) announced plans to allocate $445,000 to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative partnership to expand habitat conservation efforts for the federally listed lesser prairie-chicken.
Once abundant across the Southern Great Plains, lesser prairie-chicken populations have declined sharply, largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May, 2014.
Launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010, the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI) offers financial and technical support to ranchers and farmers who voluntarily enhance lesser prairie-chicken habitat on their agricultural lands.
Critical to that conservation effort are the LPCI-funded field staff who work one-on-one with landowners to provide conservation planning, technical support, and habitat monitoring on enrolled lands. NRCS partners with several organizations and agencies to fund these field positions, collectively known as the Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT).
In its January 11 announcement, WAFWA committed $222,500 a year over the next two years to the SWAT program. The Initiative will utilize the funding to hire new field staff in critical habitat regions of the five states that comprise the lesser prairie-chicken’s range—Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
SWAT field staff will, in turn, expand their services to deliver conservation planning and monitoring for both WAFWA and NRCS conservation programs that benefit lesser prairie-chickens.
According to Jon Ungerer, LPCI Coordinator, WAFWA’s funding will greatly strengthen the LPCI partnership. “Currently, LPCI and WAFWA offer closely aligned conservation programs and assistance. This partnership combines rangeland expertise of NRCS with wildlife expertise of the five-state fish and wildlife agencies.”
He continues, “With this funding, we can provide one-stop shopping for landowners and streamline services by merging technical assistance for WAFWA and NRCS programs aimed at conserving lesser prairie-chicken habitat.”
WAFWA’s funding stems from a mitigation program established through the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Plan (RWP), which WAFWA oversees. Industries with developments within the lesser prairie-chicken’s range pay a mitigation fee to provide habitat conservation for the chicken.
To date, industry enrollment and mitigation fees have amounted to more than $37 million, which WAFWA has placed in an endowment to support habitat conservation measures on private lands in the lesser prairie-chicken’s range.
Ross Melinchuk, Chairman of WAFWA’s Lesser Prairie Chicken Council, describes the win-win nature of their financial commitment, “Our expanded partnership with NRCS through the SWAT program magnifies our ability to deliver lesser prairie-chicken conservation to private landowners in a timely and cost-effective manner.”
The RWP offers agricultural landowners and operators financial assistance for a number of voluntary management options, ranging from habitat improvement practices to conservation easements.
With the 2014 listing of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act, many landowners have expressed concern about how ESA regulations might affect their agricultural operations.
Ungerer explains, “This partnership provides landowners with the planning assistance they need to receive Endangered Species Act protections when implementing their conservation plans, and the ability to utilize their plan whether they choose to enroll in an NRCS or WAFWA financial assistance program or not.”