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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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