Private landowners and operators in the Southern Plains and Panhandle regions of Texas have an opportunity to apply for a new conservation funding source announced recently by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The announcement of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership creates a $33 million partnership with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to use innovative approaches to restore and protect the habitats for wildlife, including seven at-risk species and other vulnerable game species.
The targeted at-risk species in Texas, the lesser prairie chicken, is a ground-nesting bird native to the rangelands of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. In the spring during the lesser prairie-chickens’ breeding season, the birds gather on leks or “booming” grounds to display unique courtships.
Lesser prairie chicken populations declined dramatically during the past several decades due to loss of native prairie, habitat fragmentation, and degradation of habitat on both private and public lands.
With more than 90 percent of the lesser prairie chicken habitat occurring on private lands, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its partners, which include Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS) have taken a proactive and targeted approach to species conservation.
In 2011, NRCS launched the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative (LPCI) to focus technical and financial resources on improving lesser prairie chicken habitat. Working Lands for Wildlife will complement the existing LPCI by providing additional targeted funding to help farmers and ranchers enhance, restore and protect habitat for lesser prairie chicken, and increase landowner confidence that the conservation practices they volunteer to implement will not harm the species or its habitat.
“The aim of the program is to focus available conservation dollars and wildlife expertise on the recovery of this at-risk species,” says Salvador Salinas, state conservationist for the NRCS in Texas. “Our mission is to provide financial and technical assistance to help private landowners and other producers voluntarily restore or enhance their land to create a more sustainable habitat for the lesser prairie chicken, while ensuring the viability of farming and ranching in Texas.”
Through the LPCI and Working Lands for Wildlife, NRCS offers landowners up to 75 percent financial assistance for the installation of conservation practices that promote healthy grazing lands and are also beneficial for the lesser prairie chicken. These practices include prescribed grazing, upland wildlife habitat management, brush management, prescribed burning and range planting, and obstruction removal.
“While we have had the LPCI program available in the past through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), we are eager to let private landowners know of this new opportunity for focused conservation planning and funding through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP),” Salinas says.
“We are excited about this partnership opportunity to work collaboratively with NRCS and Texas landowners and producers to improve habitat for the lesser prairie chicken,” says Don Wilhelm, State Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Programs in Texas.
Texas agriculture producers may sign up to manage and restore high-priority habitats for the lesser prairie chicken within the eligible Texas counties. The targeted Texas counties include: Ochiltree, Lipscomb, Roberts, Hemphill, Gray, Wheeler, Donley, Collingsworth, Deaf Smith, Parmer, Bailey, Lamb, Cochran, Hockley, Yoakum, Terry, Gaines and Oldham.
“We are pleased that Texas landowners, working with the partners in this effort, have an opportunity to make some improvements on their land that will also benefit the lesser prairie chicken,” says Ross Melinchuk, Deputy Executive Director for Natural Resources, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Our hope is that many landowners will take advantage of the extra funding available to create more contiguous habitat for this special bird.”
Interested persons should visit their local NRCS office to fill out an application. A cutoff date of April 30 has been set to rank eligible applications for funding in the first sign-up period. If funds remain, a second sign-up period will be held through May 30, 2012. The unique circumstances and concerns of interested historically underserved ranchers are also addressed by offering a higher payment rate for them.
Applications within the priority habitat areas will receive highest consideration (maps are available on request). Interested producers and landowners in targeted areas can enroll in EQIP and WHIP on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. NRCS funds from EQIP and WHIP will share the cost of conservation practices with landowners and other potential partners in areas known to support the selected species.
For more information about this and other NRCS conservation programs, visit the Texas NRCS Web site at www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov, or contact your local NRCS office.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Priority Areas 2012 map (PDF; 164 Kb)