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Fate of lesser prairie chickens in air

8/17/2012

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps up in September and announces its plans on how to deal with a declining lesser prairie chicken population, small game biologist Jim Pitman figures they will suggest listing it as threatened.

He's hoping the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, along with wildlife agencies in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, will be able to show enough is being done to prevent its inclusion on the Endangered Species List.

That ultimately won't be known until sometime in September 2013, if he's right about an initial proposal to list the bird as threatened.

KDWP&T and the other wildlife agencies are working hard to keep the bird from being listed.

Pitman, the small game coordinator for KDWP&T, said the agency is opposed to adding the lesser prairie chicken to the endangered species list because it fears private landowners might be unwilling to step forward with continued voluntary conservation efforts.

It's primarily a result of an expansion in Conservation Reserve Program acres that the bird has increased in population in Kansas, which contains roughly half of the remaining population.

It also would stop hunting of the birds, even though it's not actively sought by many Kansas hunters.

In fact, only approximately 500 birds might be killed each year, although he's quick to admit those numbers might be wrong.

"In our view, hunting is a powerful conservation tool," he said.

That's because it creates interest in the birds by hunters, he said, who spend money on guns and ammunition, providing income from a tax that is returned to enhance wildlife.

The numbers from a recent survey by the Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group aren't yet available, but should be in a few weeks, Pitman said. The helicopter survey was conducted earlier this spring in the five states within the bird's range.

Pitman said the survey found a sharply higher number of birds, contrasting what the agency found when it completed its ground-based survey at about the same time.

That ground-based survey, conducted since 1967, recorded a sharp decline in lesser prairie chickens compared to a year ago.

The helicopter's survey, however, was markedly higher.

"The numbers were much higher than what we expected," he said of the five-state survey.

Kansas was more in line with what was expected, but still about 50 percent higher than last year.

"These surveys will be the basis for a range-wide lesser prairie chicken management plan being developed by the five states in collaboration with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Grassland Initiative," Pitman said in a statement earlier this year. "The plan is expected to be completed by next March, and we are hopeful that it will preclude the need for the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the lesser prairie chicken as a federally threatened or endangered species."

While the numbers aren't out, he said several previously unknown leks were found, including some beyond what was thought to be the northern boundary.

While Pitman isn't sure if the management plan will be enough to convince FWS, he hopes it will be.

Even the CRP exodus by farmers isn't a worry for Pitman.

Part of that plan will show 97 percent of the CRP acres taken out of the program remain in grass and continue to provide habitat for prairie chickens.

He stands by the numbers but the people who compiled the data at Natural Resource Conservation Service say it's too preliminary and didn't want to release it.

Pitman said the numbers probably have dropped since April but still remain high.