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Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

Hard Country: A Lesser Prairie-Chicken Final Frontier

By Lew Carpenter

Reprinted with permission from the North American Grouse Partnership. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of the Grouse Partnership News.

Thirty years of drought has been tough on lesser prairie-chickens in eastern New Mexico. The hard scrabble country leaves little opportunity for a bird that once exploded skyward by the hundreds throughout the landscape on any given day. And, while lesser prairie-chicken numbers have recently ticked up – offering hope that proper wildlife management and private landowner incentives will ultimately save this prince of the grasslands – so much still must be done.

 

Jim Weaver left his work – 18 years at Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, Department of Ecology and Systematics where he focused on endangered species – to raise both a family and cattle on an eastern New Mexico ranch; plus to engage his passion, hunting with a falcon. Drought and the  inherent logistics of the remote ranch got the better of the cattle operation, but the lesser prairie-chickens are still there – not in the great numbers of the mid 70s, but with respectable populations that would not exist without landowner passion and respect for the habitat.

 

“It’s not what people think about when they think of a beautiful New Mexico Ranch. We are out on the eastern side where the country has been beat up for so long it’s hard to find a place that easily fits the travel brochure – let’s put it that way,” Weaver said.

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

The Weaver Ranch is on the High Plains where it’s nearly all been farmed at one time or another. The redeeming thing for Weaver is that this was where all the prairie chickens were, which means at least from that standpoint everything was looking pretty good.

 

“We started off buying a couple of sections down here and it was $40 an-acre-land if that sort of puts things in perspective – so at that point a couple of sections wasn’t that big of a deal for someone still holding down a university job,” he said. “So, at any rate, that’s how we started, and over time other pieces and properties came together and we ended up with roughly 30,000 acres of this kind of country over the past 30 or 40 years.”

 

When Weaver put together a cattle operation he did things a little differently than others. He started out with some Mashona cattle, a tribal breed of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, that he ran into over in Africa when he was there doing bird research, and brought that breed over here through an independent USDA import protocol and started them in 1995. “That was more-or-less a success and it was great having the breed here. But we sold out of those cattle probably six or seven years ago,” he said. “We’d had a couple of exceptionally dry years, even for the overall drought, and we could no longer make that pencil out on a normal kind of cattle operation, so we sold out and went back to just worrying about prairie-chickens, more-or-less, and continuing to improve the land and get it back in shape where we thought it was optimal lesser prairie-chicken habitat.” Habitat on the ranch has been improved during the years and, along with the deep sand and hard flats, it has more than a hundred pastures of various sizes with some irrigated pastures running organic alfalfa. The improvements have been good for the chickens, keeping them alive by providing access to water and insects in those pastures.

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

“In the beginning, for a period of three or four years in the early to mid-70s, you could easily see a thousand chickens in a day,” Weaver said. “I was hunting chickens back then, and other game birds, with a falcon. And we would use pointing dogs, too. We were camping down here in those days and we were out there every day. Many, many times we would see three or four hundred fly right over the top of our camp.”

 

It’s hard to say what the total population was back then since there was no real effort to figure it out, according to Weaver. If the birds were gone folks would just say they’ll be back like they always have, but it has taken a lot longer than anyone anticipated.

 

“I’ve always been one of the people that’s been against the listing of the birds,” he said. “All management and control of a species rests with the US Fish and Wildlife Service once they are federally listed as Threatened or Endangered. But there just isn’t any money to do anything once they are listed. And this goes back to my time at Cornell years ago with endangered species. It’s just the worst thing in the world when you start inhibiting people’s ability to work with wildlife – at least from a wildlife management standpoint – if you can’t get in there quick and get your hands on something to make a difference then you’re pretty much dead in the water.”

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

However, in Weaver’s mind there’s always hope. It really depends on whether the remaining habitat can be optimized with such little suitable habitat left in New Mexico – just two or three counties still have appropriate habitat, and very small portions of those counties. In addition, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments in the area have been cut to their lowest in the country making it difficult to convince farmers to get on board. “They don’t even pay them enough now to cover their expenses,” Weaver said. “And then they cut out the mid-management contract and cost sharing and so on. So the farmers’ incentive is to plow it back up and we’ve seen a couple of leks plowed out of expired CRP. In this area its mostly classified as Highly Erodible Soil that has suffered by wind erosion since the Dust Bowl days. That’s one of the saddest things about it. Private landowners are willing to help, but they need to get paid.”

 

Mesquite and shinnery oak were Weaver’s biggest problems on the ranch when he arrived. And they still are a problem today, sucking what little moisture the landscape receives, preventing the grass from growing. Lesser prairie-chickens need residual grass for nesting habitat, but you can’t have residual grass unless you have grass in the first place. “The shinnery oak prevents the grass from becoming dominant again in the way it used to be back in pre-European times, and you’re up against that battle all the time,” Weaver said. “Mesquite is another big problem because chickens avoid places where the mesquite is more than three or four feet tall, so you’ve got to get rid of the mesquite.”

 

Weaver thinks the chickens could probably survive on a managed, million-acre complex. It doesn’t all have to be adjacent parcels, but they need to be close enough – not blocked by another wind farm or some high-tension wires, or something else that further breaks up the habitat that’s available.

 

“It’s really all they have left,” he said. “There’s really no place else for them to go. It’s absolutely the end of the line for the New Mexico lesser prairie-chicken if people don’t really start paying attention. New Mexico Game and Fish has been great. They’ve got chicken areas all over the place but they lack management money. But we’ve lined up some of those places for the Game and Fish to buy and it’s worked out great, and we’ve got a charitable foundation that buys acres when they become available to try to hold them for conservation-minded people that may want to buy them later, whether that be private folks, NM Game and Fish or US Fish and Wildlife Service – whoever might come along when they are solvent enough to want to make these kinds of conservation investments.”

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

Opportunities for the million acres of lesser prairie-chicken habitat could include Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The BLM assets in this area aren’t all the best chicken habitat, but they do own some of it, and the BLM has made some positive strides, according to Weaver. “They’ve changed some of their grazing regimes around, which has been pretty unpopular for them in the ranching community, but it was the right thing to do to reestablish and maintain good habitat. There’s been no subsoil moisture here to speak of for almost 30 years. That moisture regime has to be returned and the brush has to be controlled and we might come back to a reasonable diversity of grasslands that will sustain these birds.”

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

Currently, there are about 17 leks on Weaver’s ranch up from three to four at the lowest point. He saw a good year, last year, with almost a tripling of numbers of birds on lek in just that one season. He’s optimistic that there are plenty of people coming along that want to conserve the country, and with good wildlife management and private landowner incentives something significant could be done. “We’ve worked closely over the years with groups or agencies that offer grant or cost-share assistance for conservation work. US Fish and Wildlife Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the NRCS Grasslands Reserve Program, Farm Services Agency EQIP and CRP programs, Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish, New Mexico State Land Office, and Center of Excellence have all cooperated at some point. Folks want to do the best thing they can for the land and the wildlife and the habitat,” he said. “And they are proud of what they have to show for it when they do fix things up for game birds and for wildlife in general, which leads to better biodiversity overall.”

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Artemis and NWF release report highlighting link between mule deer and sage-grouse

Just as mule-deer hunters are getting ready to head into the field for hunting season, members of the sportswomen’s group Artemis are releasing a report to raise awareness that anyone who cares about deer should care about greater sage-grouse and the remarkable effort across the West to save the iconic bird.

Artemis and the National Wildlife Federation, today released the report “Living on Common Ground – Sportswomen speak out to save the mule deer, sage-grouse and sagebrush country.”

Mule deer and sage-grouse have been in decline across much of the West. Sage-grouse used to number in the millions, but now less than a half million remain. A recent study in Pinedale, Wyo., found that mule deer herds have declined by 40 percent in the heavily developed gas fields of the region. The report explores what for sportswomen is impossible to ignore – sagebrush lands throughout the West provide vital habitat for both species and those lands are steadily disappearing.

“Mule deer and sage-grouse are the canaries in the coal mine for sage steppe health,” says Jessi Johnson, Artemis coordinator and Wyoming Wildlife Federation public lands coordinator. “If we fail to listen to the warnings they are giving us with their dwindling numbers, we will lose not only two iconic Western species but a host of dependent flora and fauna and the very essence of what makes living in the West so special.”

Hearing that warning, a diverse group of stakeholders from across the West, including the sporting community, came together to build conservation plans aimed at saving sage-grouse. Completed in 2015, these sage-grouse conservation plans allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the bird didn’t need to be added to the endangered species list. The conservation plans instead represent a balanced approach to management of the bird’s habitat on our nation’s public lands that would also accommodate other careful uses.

However, changes being considered by the Trump administration could now derail implementation of the plans, threatening the fate of sage-grouse and the more than 350 species, including mule deer, which depend on the West’s sagebrush lands. Interior Secretary Zinke seeks to weaken safeguards meant to accommodate responsible development on sagebrush lands while preserving their value as habitat. Instead, the Secretary continues to drift away from conserving healthy habitats, continuing to explore instead unsound schemes relying on population numbers and captive breeding.

“Where will those captive-bred birds find homes,” asks Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands policy director. “The sage-grouse conservation plans are the result of long, hard work of stakeholders across the West who spent years finding common ground and a pathway to the future for both people and wildlife. It would be an ominous blow to sage-grouse and mule deer and all of us who live in the West if we can no longer safeguard the lands where they find food and cover.”

Artemis understands that hunters will be key to ensuring that both the species thrive into the future and is urging support for the sage-grouse conservation plans.

“As an avid hunter of mule deer on public land, I feel it’s of the utmost importance that their breeding and feeding grounds are maintained and protected,” says Artemis co-founder Cindi Baudhuin. “I hope that ‘Living on Common Ground’ will help drive home the important link between mule deer and sage-grouse for hunters.”

Artemis and NWF continue to move forward by reaching out to hunters, local communities, and other wildlife advocates to ensure everyone understands that the future of mule deer and sage- grouse are inextricably linked.

“As hunters, anglers and wildlife conservationists, now is the opportunity to work to ensure these populations exist for future generations,” says Sara Domek, Artemis Co-founder. “Sustaining and enhancing seasonal movement corridors and stay-over habitat of wildlife need to be a priority, and the conservation plans provide tangible measures to protect mule deer and sage-grouse habitat.”

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Artemis is a group of bold sportswomen creating fresh tracks for conservation and an initiative of NWF. Mule deer are a particular species of concern for Artemis. Follow Artemis on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

The National Wildlife Federation is America’s largest conservation organization, uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Like many sportsmen across Colorado, I’m heartened that Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) have reached across party lines to re-introduce the Public Lands Renewable Energy Act. This legislation takes a balanced approach to meet America’s energy needs, bolster clean energy technologies, and protect wildlife which sportsmen depend on by reducing future impacts of clean energy facilities.

A wind farm backdrops this Colorado pheasant hunter. Photo by Lew Carpenter.

A wind farm backdrops this Colorado pheasant hunter. Photo by Lew Carpenter.

As an avid angler and hunter, I know how valuable of our public lands are as a resource for recreation, beauty, and fish and game species. That’s why I support S. 279’s more efficient approach to clean energy development. The bill would set aside royalties from renewable projects to support local economies and mitigate impacts on fish and wildlife resources. By contributing thirty-five percent of the royalties collected to a conservation fund, Colorado sportsmen like me and thousands of others can keep enjoying the resources which make our state so special. State and Counties would receive twenty-five percent each.

“We want our public lands to be great places to fish and hunt,” Keith Curley, Director of Government Affairs for Trout Unlimited, “This bill would help ensure that when wind and solar energy development occurs on public lands, there are resources available to protect and restore habitat and secure public access in the affected areas.”

In addition, S.279 would establish a competitive leasing system, mirroring the system already in place for oil and gas industries, and make it more feasible for smart development projects to take place on federal lands. This more efficient process would be particularly beneficial to us here in Colorado, which has a tremendous potential for wind power on millions of acres of public land suitable for such projects. This will allow us to develop necessary new sources of wind and solar power on suitable public lands and at the same time give back a portion of the royalties to those most affected by the projects – the states and counties, as well as wildlife and the sportsmen who have a stake in the future of these public lands.

Senator Tester hit it dead on when he said, “With some of the best renewable energy development sites located on public lands, it’s vital to expand this industry while protecting the natural resources that make the West famous. He frames the bill as, “A common-sense way to create jobs and provide renewable energy the same opportunities as oil and gas while increasing our energy security.”

I want to thank our congressmen from Montana, Idaho, and across the nation for working together to reintroduce The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act of 2013. I also am proud to be a part of the extensive network of supports for this bill, which includes the Western Governors Association, the National Association of Counties, conservation groups like The National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, and conservationist and sportsmen across the nation. Tom France, Senior Director of Western Wildlife Conservation of the National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountains and Prairies Regional Center called the bill, “A win-win strategy to facilitate needed renewable energy development on suitable public lands.”

I believe we have much to gain for this bill’s directed effort to increase our energy independence, create meaningful jobs, support local and state level economies, and protect our unique wildlife heritage for future generations of Colorado hunters and anglers.

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DENVER – A sportsmen’s coalition applauds the Bureau of Land of Management’s balanced decision on the protection of many vital fish and wildlife habitats, but has concerns about the increased risk to the greater sage-grouse.

The final programmatic environmental impact statement released Friday would make about 800,000 acres available for oil shale and tar sands production in northwest Colorado, southwest Wyoming and northeastern Utah. Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development supports the BLM’s move to require more research before issuing commercial leases on public land and believes it is prudent for companies with existing research parcels to show tangible results before additional land is leased.

While many important habitat areas were protected, some key greater sage-grouse habitats in Wyoming were opened to potential development, which is of concern, the coalition said. The National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnerships are the SFRED coalition’s lead partners.

“We need to understand fully the trade-offs we are making before we seal the deal to commit a thousand square miles of public land to this risky business,’’ said Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife’s public lands policy director. “If we don’t, good air and water quality, fish and wildlife values could be lost forever.’’

The proposal revises a 2008 plan to open about 2 million acres of public lands in the three Rocky Mountain states to oil shale and tar sands development. The BLM took another look at the plan after challenges from several conservation groups.

“Colorado’s Piceance Basin has the region’s richest oil shale deposits and is also the heart of what’s long been called the state’s mule-deer factory,’’ said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. “ The BLM has said oil shale and tar sands development might fragment or destroy wildlife habitat.’’

Northwestern Colorado was home to about 120,000 mule deer in the early 1980s, O’Neill said, but the population had dropped to about 50,000 by 2010.

“Oil and gas drilling has increased substantially in the area and more development is planned,’’ she added. “We don’t know how much more pressure the herds can bear.’’

Hunters and anglers commend the Interior Department for taking a more prudent approach to oil shale and tar sands development, said Ed Arnett, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Responsible Energy Development.

“We support responsible energy development,’’ Arnett added, “but oil shale remains an unproven source of energy and we don’t know how much water or electricity will be need to unlock the oil in the rocks.’’

The region’s public lands are crucial for hunting, fishing and recreation, all sustainable, important parts of the economy, said Brad Powell, energy director for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project

“The region’s fish and wildlife populations are dependent on the availability of clean, cold water. Our water supplies in the West are too valuable to put at risk until the technology is better developed,” Powell said.

Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development is a coalition of more than 500 businesses, organizations and individuals dedicated to conserving irreplaceable habitats so future generations can hunt and fish on public lands. The coalition is led by Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation.

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