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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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Well the attack is on again,

The Humane Society of the United States has once again submitted a Citizen’s Petition to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to Ban the Use of Cage Traps in Colorado.  

This is a call to Action.

For 3 years in a row now they have attempted to impose their will on the Wildlife Management Community.  We have been successful the last 2 years in defeating this assault and we are asking for your Support in kicking them back to their corner.

The virtual landscape creates a difficult situation for our community.  While virtual testimony will likely be significantly limited an email campaign to the Commission is imperative.

By March 16th please send an email to the Commissioners of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and ask them to oppose this frivolous and nefarious petition.  Tell them that the Professionals of Colorado Parks & Wildlife should continue to manage our Wildlife in the State of Colorado and not let an agenda driven Animal Rights Group take the tone and narrative that continually attacks the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.  

The Cover Letter and the Petition that HSUS has filed along with all of the Commission email addresses can be found here: http://coloradotrapper.com

Please be brief, concise, professional and explain to them why they should not allow this to happen.  

Whether you bow hunt, big game hunt, bird hunt, predator hunt, or are an avid angler standing together is a necessary means of victory and sustainability. We must unite.

Dan Prenzlow at dan.prenzlow@state.co.us

Marvin McDaniel at marvin.mcdaniel@state.co.us

Carrie Hauser at carrie.hauser@state.co.us

Marie Haskett at marie.haskett@state.co.us

Taishya Adams at Taishya.Adams@state.co.us

Betsy Blecha at betsy.blecha@state.co.us

Charles Garcia at charles.garcia@state.co.us

Dallas May at Dallas.May@state.co.us

Duke Phillips at Duke.Phillips@state.co.us

Luke Schafer at Luke.Schafer@state.co.us

James Tutchton at James.Tutchton@state.co.us

Eden Vardy at Eden.Vardy@state.co.us

Thank you for your Support.  If you have any questions please feel free to reach out.  See attachments.

Chair

Dan Gates

719 269-7972

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The South Platte at Elevenmile Canyon, Colorado. Photo by Rich Holland

The South Platte at Elevenmile Canyon, Colorado. Photo by Rich Holland

Former Interior Secretary Salazar, NWF CEO and affiliates say keep public lands public

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar joined Collin O’Mara, the National Wildlife Federation’s CEO and president, and business and conservation leaders Thursday to speak out for conserving America’s public lands and against attempts to sell or get rid of the lands that sustain fish and wildlife populations as well as hunting, fishing and the country’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation industry.

The National Wildlife Federation’s 49 state affiliates have unanimously approved a resolution that calls for keeping public lands in public hands and opposes large-scale exchanges, sales or giveaways of federally managed lands. This week, 41 of the state affiliates sent a letter to the Republican National Committee asking that it rescind a resolution adopted this year that urges Congress to turn over public lands to the Western states that want them.

The affiliates noted that public lands help grow America’s economy by supporting an outdoor recreation industry that generates $646 billion in economic benefit annually and supports 6.1 million jobs. The organizations stressed that wise stewardship of the lands that belong to all Americans is a long tradition that cuts across political and social lines.

Shadow Mountain Lake, Colorado. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Shadow Mountain Lake, Colorado. Photo by Lew Carpenter

“Despite the economic importance of federal lands to wildlife and people, they remain under constant threat. In recent years, several state legislative proposals have called on the federal government to transfer ownership of public lands to the states, which in turn would pass them off to private interests in many instances,” the organizations wrote.

The Interior Department’s latest annual economic report shows the agency’s programs and activities generated $360 billion in benefits and supported more than 2 million jobs nationwide in fiscal 2013. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar started preparing the reports in 2009 to highlight the department’s contributions to the U.S. economy.

“The nation’s public lands are the birthright and priceless heritage of all Americans. Our policymakers and elected leaders should be working to preserve and enhance these multiple use economic engines,” said Salazar, who served as Interior secretary from 2009 to 2013.

The National Wildlife Federation is on the front lines of conserving fish and wildlife and the places where they live, and in large part those places are public lands, O’Mara said.

“The National Wildlife Federation, our 49 state affiliates, and four million members and supporters strongly support keeping our public lands in public hands. As a diverse federation of hunters, anglers, hikers, wildlife watchers, and nature lovers, we are united in our passion for protecting public lands, which provide amazing outdoor experiences for all Americans, landscapes for deer, elk, pronghorn, and bison herds to migrate, forests for grizzlies, bighorn sheep and lynx, and critical habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 1,000 species of fish and 250 reptile and amphibian species. For more than a century, protecting land for the benefit all outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife has been an essential element of the American experience—and we must pass on this legacy to future generations,” O’Mara said.

The wildlife federations have worked through the years to conserve the public lands necessary for fish and wildlife and hunting and fishing and will continue to do, said David Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation executive director.

“Every few decades this idea of selling off public land pops up, and public opinion always beats it back. Meanwhile, the challenges facing our national forests and other public lands have continued to grow,” Chadwick added. “We need our elected officials to quit wasting time on these speculative, ideological proposals and instead take action on the common-sense, collaborative efforts under way all over the country to improve land management.”

Hanging Lake, Colorado. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Hanging Lake, Colorado. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Surveys and polls show overwhelming support for public lands among voters in the West, the target of many of the drives to dispose of public land. That support extends beyond the region to other parts of the country where hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts enjoy the backcountry, rivers and forests, said Tim Gestwicki, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation CEO.

“Sportsmen and women and wildlife watchers in the Southeast value our public lands, from the Appalachians to the coast. We also value the Western lands and their abundant wildlife, big open spaces and great hunting and fishing. We stand with our fellow sportsmen and women in defending public lands and protecting the special places that offer some of the best of what this country is about,” Gestwicki said.

“Sportsmen are on the front line in this effort to prevent the transfer of federal public lands. These are the very lands where we hunt and fish, and where we pass on those traditions to our kids. The idea that somehow our federal public lands are dispensable is an affront to all hunters and anglers, and we are determined to protect these lands for ourselves and for future generations,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

America’s national parks, monuments and rugged landscapes are not only a draw for people in this country, but across the world, said Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of Black Diamond, Inc., a leading manufacturer of outdoor sports equipment and clothing.

“No other country in the world has the public land infrastructure that we have. There’s such a richness of landscape and wildlife. Our public lands and outdoor recreation and lifestyles are coveted by people around the world and are a draw for communities and employers competing for new businesses and workers,” Metcalf said. “Black Diamond’s brand is synonymous with these iconic landscapes that capture the imagination of people all over the world. In addition they are a source of inspiration for our designers, engineers and marketing people.”

Additional Resources: `Valuing our Public Lands: Safeguarding our Economy and Way of Life,’

National Wildlife Federation affiliates’ resolution on transfer of public lands.

NWF affiliates’ letter on transfer, sale of public lands.

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DENVER — The Bureau of Land Management announced today that it will use state and regional data and maps to help it identify wildlife corridors and crucial habitat in future land-use planning and management efforts.  The maps will be available for the BLM to use as a result of the Western Wildlife Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, known as “CHAT”, an initiative of the Western Governors’ Association.

Information developed through the CHAT will facilitate an organized and comprehensive approach to obtaining wildlife-related data and maps by the BLM and other federal agencies.  BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool signed Instruction Memorandum (IM) No. 2012-039, which instructs land managers to use prioritized wildlife and habitat information and data developed through state- and regional-level CHATs as a principal source to inform land use planning, as well as related natural resource decisions on public lands.

Arizona, Montana and Washington have already developed state-specific information and data, and a regional-level data set is now available that covers several states in the southern great plains.  More states are expected to develop information in 2012, and a West-wide CHAT is expected to be available in 2013.

“Western states are developing information on wildlife corridors and crucial habitat that the BLM can use in implementing this IM, which will likely reduce our costs and create efficiencies in planning and land use management,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said.

In 2009, the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Energy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Western Governors’ Association regarding coordination among federal agencies and states in the identification and uniform mapping of wildlife corridors and crucial habitat.

“Governors in Western states are working hard to promote new jobs and development, while recognizing the need to protect our wildlife and their habitat,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire, WGA Chair. “These tools help achieve our goals and ensure that people planning development projects consider wildlife values early in their planning process.”

Utah Governor Gary Herbert, WGA Vice-Chairman, said, “At a time when we are working hard to reduce government spending, it is appreciated that the BLM is looking to use this cutting-edge wildlife information from state agencies to inform their planning decisions.”

The BLM’s National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy and the Rapid Ecoregional Assessments are two ongoing efforts that will use the CHAT data and maps when appropriate to support planning and management activities.

Click here to read the IM.

About the WGA – Established in 1984, the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) is an independent, non-partisan organization of governors from 19 Western states, two Pacific-flag territories and one commonwealth. Through WGA, member Governors identify and address key policy and governance issues in natural resources, the environment, human services, economic development, international relations, transportation and public management.

Since the adoption of WGA’s Wildlife Corridors Initiative Report in June 2008, 17 states have become members of the Western Governors’ Wildlife Council.  Its members develop policies and tools to identify and conserve crucial wildlife habitat and corridors across the region.  The Wildlife Council’s focus is on implementing the CHAT model by 2013, making information on important fish and wildlife habitat compatible across the West and easily accessible to anyone making land use decisions.

About the BLM – The BLM manages more land – over 245 million acres – than any other Federal agency.  This land, known as the National System of Public Lands, is primarily located in 12 Western states, including Alaska.  The Bureau, with a budget of about $1 billion, also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation.  The BLM’s multiple-use mission is to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.  The Bureau accomplishes this by managing such activities as outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, mineral development, and energy production, and by conserving natural, historical, cultural, and other resources on public lands.

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