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Updated survey, conservation plan upcoming

7/26/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The third and final comment period on a proposal to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened won't end until Aug. 8, about a week after the final draft on a five-state conservation plan is expected to be released.

It's also going to be about the time the results of an updated helicopter and ground survey will be released, participants in a conference call learned last week.

A draft report of the survey found numbers were down on both counts.

"We got it a couple days ago," said Sean Kyle, a member of the lesser prairie chicken interstate working group, put together under the auspices of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Kansas is a member of WAFWA, as are Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

Kyle didn't give any idea how much of a decline there might have been.

"It would have been better if it rained earlier," he said. "The numbers were down on the ground survey and down on the aerial surveys as well."

Jim Pitman, the small game coordinator for Kansas and the state's point man on lesser prairie chicken, said the report is under internal review.

"The decline from last year appears to be pretty substantial, as expected," Pitman said in an email "That's all I can tell you at this point."

Participants also talked about the Conservation Reserve Program, both in terms of how many acres were signed up in the latest enrollment period and the reopening of haying and grazing.

As it turned out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its was accepting 1.7 million acres of land into the program.

It's not yet known how many Kansas acres were accepted.

However, Pheasants Forever voiced concerns about the program total, now standing at 26.9 million acres -- a 26-year low.

"Pheasants Forever calls this depletion a modern low point for conservation, one which will have serious ramifications not only for wildlife, but for the nation's soil and water quality as well," a statement from the wildlife group said.

USDA also has released some CRP acres in Kansas for haying and grazing.

It is, however, restricting its use to land that wasn't hayed or grazed in either 2011 or 2012.

"We're limiting it to people who have not hayed or grazed the last two years," said Mark Witecha, a Pheasants Forever farm bill wildlife biologist based in Ness City.

About 950,000 acres of CRP was grazed in the previous two years, the Kansas Farm Service Agency said, leaving about 1.3 million acres that can be grazed.

CRP hayed must leave half of the land untouched as cover for wildlife while grazing must be stopped when the average height reaches 5 inches.

Hay can't be sold, but the land can be rented for either cutting hay or grazing cattle.

Northwest Kansas counties approved for haying and grazing are: Cheyenne, Decatur, Ellis, Gove, Graham, Logan, Ness, Norton, osborne, Phillips, Rawlins, Rooks, Rush, Russell, Sheridan, Sherman, Smith, Thomas, Trego and Wallace counties.

Last year, nearly 175,000 acres in northwest Kansas were either hayed or grazed as a result of the drought.

That's out of nearly 675,000 CRP acres in the northwest Kansas counties, a number down sharply since 2007.