A handful of ranches in northwest Kansas have become a haven for lesser prairie chickens and the bird watchers who travel entire continents to view their spring mating dance.

Now, the ranchers who once saw the vulnerable species of grouse as a nuisance see a potential economic opportunity, thanks to an ecotourism initiative by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

While bird populations have seen a large dropoff in much of southwestern Kansas and the other four states in the bird's native range — Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas — the birds on Stacy Hoeme's ranch in Scott City and along the rest of the Smoky Hill River basin have thrived. A report prepared by Wyoming-based Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc., in October 2018 placed the estimated total lesser prairie chicken population at 38,637 with 90 percent certainty, saying that number could ultimately be as low as 20,233 or as high as 49,698. Of that estimate, the overwhelming majority of lesser prairie chickens (an estimated 22,714) were located within the Short Grass/Conservation Reserve Program Prairie Region of northwest Kansas.

"To me, that identifies the importance of the shortgrass prairie in northwest Kansas to sustaining all prairie chicken populations," said Kent Fricke, small game coordinator for the KDWPT. "And that we have a relatively good amount of habitat in the shortgrass."

Because the lesser prairie chicken's natural habitat has diminished to the point that western Kansas is one of the last remaining locations with a sustainable native population, KDWPT outdoor content manager Michael Pearce said the demand was high for a public area to view lessers. And as the KDWPT had recently shifted its focus to the ecotourism aspect of birdwatching, Pearce saw the potential for something greater for the lessers in northwest Kansas.

Pearce sent emails to four birding tour groups, and within just 10 minutes he received an email back wishing to book a tour group of 12 people. That first spring alone, Hoeme Ranch and the Smoky Valley Ranch in Oakley saw four tour groups with 30 people total come to view the birds.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Oakley's Jim Millensifer, who now books the tour groups as the state looks to hand off the responsibility to private citizens, the ranches so far this year have had more than 200 people come in for guided tours, including people from 30 different states and 11 foreign countries. What's even more impressive about those numbers is that the organization has done no advertising whatsoever — birders have shared the details by word of mouth alone.

Millensifer stressed how much of an economic impact the tours have already had on their small communities, especially during times of the year where tourism typically drops off completely.

"Twenty-seven of the 30 tours stayed in either Scott City or stayed in Oakley," Millensifer said, adding the other three stayed in Dodge City, Colby and Burlington, Colo. "Virtually all of them ate at least one meal, if not two, at local restaurants. We had nine different hotels or lodging places that were utilized. And obviously, they bought candy, gum, cigarettes, beer, ice, et cetera.

"We had 200 people from the outside come in, it was about 211 room nights total. And, by the way, this is in March and April and early May, so generally that's the slowest time for these communities."

Though the birds have undoubtedly provided value already to some landowners and their communities, the birds' declining numbers also have been a cause of contention amongst ranchers in western Kansas, where their brief listing as a threatened species in 2014 meant landowners would be heavily restricted in what they could do with their own property. That listing was overturned in a 2015 court order, however, though conservation groups have been pushing for the lesser prairie chicken to regain its threatened status. The bird is currently listed as a vulnerable species.

The state is working with private landowners and local businesses to try to turn around the negative perception of the lesser prairie chicken and show why it is a valuable bird to protect. By encouraging an ecotourism aspect to conservation efforts, the state is enabling landowners and their surrounding communities to take ownership and reap the benefits of major tourism dollars coming from those who travel to western Kansas to see the rare bird.

 

Worth their while

Common Ground Capital LLC, which is a private-sector conservation mitigation banking company, works in partnership with the Western Alliance of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to provide funding through mitigation credits to landowners who allow use of these easements for conservation and ecotourism, working to set up these preserves for years to come.

Wayne Walker, principal of Common Ground, said the company currently works with 55,000 acres in Kansas and 90,000 total across four states, with most of its conservation partners coming from Kansas. His company plays a unique role in providing protections for conservation land.

"So I'm like a developer, but instead of doing things to the land that oftentimes mess it up, we're trying to preserve the land or restore it in its natural state," Walker said. "So I go contact the land owner — I don't buy the land, I partner with the landowner — then I go through all the development activities in our world. I've gotta survey for birds, are they there? I've gotta measure the grass, I've gotta do all this stuff every year, and then I've gotta get this land effectively approved or permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Then I've got to go find somebody to buy the mitigation from the property once it's approved, just like a housing developer's gotta build it and then he's gotta sell the houses. So I'm selling acres of conservation to protect the species. The landowner and I effectively split the profits."

After the legal battle concerning the conservation status of the lesser prairie chicken, several companies started to invest in conservation efforts for the bird, hoping to prevent intervention from the federal government. However, Walker said, some have started to back away from those initiatives.

"We've got a few companies that are doing it, but a lot of them have dropped out of the state program and we need to get them back, because if we don't voluntarily make progress on protecting these birds, the feds are really just going to have to list it, ultimately," Walker said. "They are trying to see that the states, working with people like us and landowners, are voluntarily getting these last great strongholds protected, because right now they're not protected."

Pearce said he hopes landowners will see the economic value inherent in preserving these birds and see that the process itself requires little, if any, extra work from the landowner.

"One thing we wanted to educate the locals on is that there's a value to ecotourism and a value to these birds," Pearce said. "If wildlife doesn't have a value, isn't appreciated, it isn't going to last. When these birds were listed by the federal government on the protected list, the opinion of those birds went down quite a bit, because landowners were afraid what would happen to their ability to run a ranch.

"So the locals are starting to buy into it. You know, we've got ranchers making $200 to $600 a morning, and the people are gone by 9 a.m. An approved guides take them in, so as Stacy says, 'All they're taking with them is memories and photography,' so there's no impact on the ranch whatsoever."

To book a lesser prairie chicken tour in northwest Kansas, contact Millensifer by email at jhmillensifer@gmail.com or by phone (785) 953-1139.